Should Jordan Henderson have started for England?
Background Image: Nicholas Babaian, CC BY-SA 2.0
Three years, three international tournaments. The England men’s national team has finally proven they're ready to challenge for silverware on the global stage once again.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup and 2019’s inaugural edition of the UEFA Nations League Finals saw the Three Lions bow out in the semi-finals, yet in doing so sparked a much-needed rekindling of the strained relationship between team and country. This past month, Gareth Southgate’s men went one step further, reaching their first final in 55 years and their first ever in a European Championship.
Ultimately Italy claimed a penalty shoot-out victory at Wembley, putting an Azzuri spin on Baddiel and Skinner’s classic to ensure ‘it’ was coming to Rome.
As the nation continues to nurse hangovers and retire Vindaloo from its party playlists, an air of reflection sets in and every minute of the tournament is set for scrutiny.
England elected to field two simultaneous holding midfielders throughout the Euros, with Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips and West Ham’s Declan Rice starting every game of the campaign. As a result, Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, who returned to full fitness after four months out in England’s final warm-up game versus Romania, had his contributions reduced to cameos from the bench.
Phillips and Rice performed admirably with the former showcasing the effects of Marcelo Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ training by clocking up the competitions second highest distance covered. The Leeds man covered a total of 83km, turning in 15km in both the semi-final and final.
Rice also proved to be solid in the centre of the park registering 28 ball recoveries and a passing accuracy of 91% in 329 passes made. Many of these however were short balls out wide as the midfield pair were under strict instruction to protect the back four first and foremost.
How do you make sure you get there? Keep. The. Ball.
⌚️ 2 minutes and 40 seconds of sustained possession
🎯 53 uninterrupted completed passes
#ThreeLions | @England | #Euro2020 https://t.co/2OOwubxteV
As a partnership, Phillips and Rice were strong yet arguably too similar in terms of their individual playstyle. Both are tenacious players that are strong in the tackle and who favour bullish charges of those with the ball.
Jordan Henderson’s positioning and passing quality may have provided essential variation when partnered with one of the aforementioned starters across 90 minutes, by increasing the potency of England’s attack without sacrificing defensive strength.
Henderson averaged 1.1 tackles and 1.6 interceptions per game in the Premier League last season (Whoscored.com) signifying his ability to aid his defence. The former Sunderland man’s role at club level also includes the pivotal responsibility of covering for Liverpool full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson when the duo take off on their now infamous forward runs. This system has evolved into the Red’s primary creative outlet and saw Alexander-Arnold and Robertson finish second and third in the assists chart during Liverpool’s title-winning season.
England, on several occasions in the Euros, either started with or reverted to a system in which wing-backs were deployed either side of a back three to aid attacking prowess. This allowed Manchester United left-back Luke Shaw to shine as he bagged three assists and an essential goal in the final. Henderson’s familiarity with his club duties would have made him a prime candidate to maximise the effectiveness of this particular setup, allowing the likes of Shaw and Kieran Trippier to press higher up the field having alleviated the risk of being caught on the break.
Henderson also possesses a more natural desire to take the ball on the half-turn and play positively in comparison to Rice and Phillips. This combined with his vocalism and leadership qualities was put on exhibition during England’s string of 53 consecutive passes in the latter stages of extra time when seeing out the 2-1 semi-final victory against Denmark.
England will look eagerly ahead to next winter’s World Cup in Qatar, where they will be amongst the tournament favourites. Gareth Southgate’s squad was amongst the youngest at this summer’s championship, and fans will hope by next year, with another season of experience and development behind them the Three Lions will go all the way.
How big of a part Jordan Henderson is to play in the Middle East remains to be seen, yet there is no denying what he can bring to the table.