How Jordan Henderson evolved into Jurgen Klopp’s ideal No.6 for Liverpool

The Liverpool captain has spent his career doing exactly what critics claimed he couldn't, and his latest resurgence is further proof of his indomitable spirit


When the ball sweetly and savagely arced over the towering frame of Thibaut Courtois - at full stretch - into the top corner, it was the astonishment on the face of Marko Grujic that understandably turned viral.

Stationed in front of the stupefied young Serbian, however, was assistant manager Zeljko Buvac, wearing a wide smile and pointing to goalscorer Jordan Henderson in a knowing way. It was one that suggested the scorcher wasn’t an element of fortune, but fidelity. 

The man Jurgen Klopp describes as “a football book” was acutely aware that defining moment against Chelsea, the game at Stamford Bridge in its entirety, and the month of September so far, all belong to Liverpool’s skipper in his new guise as the club’s metronome.

Buvac’s ‘this is all you’ signal to the midfielder is an analysis echoed by those within Melwood’s walls.

Henderson, having being informed he would operate as Liverpool’s No.6 during pre-season, was not satisfied with simply understanding and implementing the basics of the role. 

He delved into what it specifically entails in Klopp’s blueprint, studying hours of footage on everything from body positioning to distribution, noting down key functionalities and mastering them during extra shifts at Melwood. 

Henderson, a sponge for information, engaged Klopp, Buvac and Peter Krawietz with observations and queries.

Having navigated the most injury-hit campaign of his career - the personal exasperation and suffering in overflow, flooding alongside doubts from outside - the England international was not content with merely transforming into a No.6, he was going to extend himself fully and morph into the best possible one. 

In Liverpool’s aggressive, relentless approach, Henderson’s role is multi-faceted. He is the club’s premier controller when in possession; dictating the tempo, switching play, determining the direction of their attacks and breaking the lines with passes into the half-spaces. 

Without the ball, he is the Reds’ primary defence from counter-attacks; his positioning allowing him to see the full picture and organise both himself and those around him to regain possession, and turn the opposition around. He has the freedom to rotate in and out of the function, a luxury that requires incredible responsibility and acute judgement.

Liverpool’s first two games of the season against Arsenal and Burnley were a crucial part of his learning process, with Klopp explaining that the complete knowledge of what is required can only truly be gained on a matchday, not in training.

At the Emirates, Henderson still managed the most touches of his side in the 4-3 victory, putting in five tackles, registering eight ball recoveries and an 86% pass accuracy in the opposition half.

But the overall command of the centre of the pitch, the shielding, as well as the control of Liverpool’s rhythm was somewhat short. The 26-year-old, typically honest and never shy of shouldering responsibility, admitted as much afterwards.

In the 2-0 defeat at Burnley, he switched up the superiority but as a unit, Klopp’s men were clouded by desperation. The gutting result may have concealed the evidence, but Henderson was growing in the position alongside Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana - both also playing deeper than natural and needing to alter their methods.

Then in the 1-1 draw at Tottenham, the 4-1 dismantling of defending champions Leicester in the first Anfield game of the season, and in breaking Antonio Conte’s long-standing home league record in a 2-1 triumph, the captain came into his own. 

Henderson’s application has not shocked anyone at the club, but his tactical intelligence and the speed in which he has adapted has thoroughly impressed the backroom team. 

Klopp believes the player’s ability to so quickly make the right decisions in differing scenarios both in and out of possession can see him develop into an “international class No.6.” 

It is why the public impression that Henderson was merely filling in for Emre Can while the Germany international regained his sharpness was met with scorn by the coaching staff. 

READ MORE | Klopp: Every Liverpool line-up I pick will be a strong one

After assessing the squad heavily at the end of last season and in the summer, discussing every position and player in microscopic detail, Klopp and his assistants knew they had gold in a fit Henderson. Able to function all across the midfield even and at full-back if necessary, his versatility was just one aspect of the positive analysis. 

Henderson’s assiduousness and his commitment to putting Liverpool’s needs well ahead of his own was another, more important facet. The overwhelming feeling is that nothing is beyond the former Sunderland man, because he openly accepts challenges and refuses to be defeated. 

No player in the league has played more successful passes than Henderson this season or enjoyed more touches for his team. Only Idrissa Gueye has crunched into more tackles and only George Boyd has beaten him for distance covered.

Henderson, as he has done since his teenage years -  from being “smaller and skinnier” than the other hopefuls at the Academy of Light, to an overpriced Liverpool flop and the makeweight in a move for Clint Dempsey, then emerging as one of the main pivots of the 2013-14 title tilt, before being reduced to a frustrated spectator through injury, and now acting as an assured controller - has volleyed criticism with the courage of his convictions.

It is absurd that Henderson is still punctuated by the question of whether he is, by standards, a ‘Liverpool player’ when his character epitomises its very definition. 

John Barnes often states the club’s most successful periods were built on players who understood they were only a small part of a big plan - those subservient to the team, to the system, to instructions.

Henderson is a credit to himself, the armband, and Liverpool. 

Klopp and his co-workers know they are blessed to manage such a indomitable force, and if he continues to assert himself on the league, supporters may finally soon reach the same conclusion about Henderson without any reservations.