Youngster has fought his way back into LFC first team
When Brendan Rodgers made his first return to Swansea City having swapped the Liberty Stadium for Anfield, it neatly encapsulated the problems he was grappling with in his new role.
Last November, Liverpool travelled to South Wales and eked out a solid if unspectacular goalless stalemate.
While it extended their unbeaten Premier League run to eight games, it only moved them on to a miserly 16 points from 13 games while keeping them marooned in the bottom half of the table.
That five of the games during that period had ended in draws underlined, Luis Suarez apart, the lack of cutting edge available to Rodgers.
The starting line-up that afternoon in Swansea was telling, Stewart Downing at left-back, Jose Enrique on the left of midfield, young Raheem Sterling on the opposite flank and a struggling Joe Allen still persevering in the centre of the park.
Also included was Jordan Henderson, making his first Premier League start under Rodgers having been given the opportunity to leave during the summer transfer window by the Northern Irishman.
Henderson stood firm. And now, less than 10 months later, he has proven himself one of the key contributors as Liverpool look to maintain their 100% start to the season when they again visit the Liberty Stadium on Monday.
If any player has signified the change of fortunes for Liverpool under Rodgers, it is the 23-year-old.
Henderson was back on the sidelines a week after the Swansea draw having been substituted in the defeat at Tottenham Hotspur three days later.
But having clambered off his sick bed to help an injury-hit Liverpool earn a 3-0 victory at Queens Park Rangers over Christmas, Henderson has started 16 of the last 21 Premier League games including each of the last 11.
His transformation has been marked. Having been signed for £16million from Sunderland in the summer of 2011, he was shunted around midfield and often handed an unaccustomed right flank role by Kenny Dalglish.
Hence his struggle to settle into any particular rhythm, although he began both the League Cup and FA Cup finals that campaign.
Supporters, though, weren’t convinced.
And neither was Rodgers, the manager offering Henderson the chance to kickstart his career at Fulham he ultimately refused.
It was the correct choice. Since the turn of the year, Henderson has added goals to his game, netting six times the most recent of which came in the Capital One Cup win against Notts County where he swept forward from midfield, nutmegged a defender and then stroked confidently beyond the goalkeeper.
The old Henderson would not have scored that goal.
But whereas once he would be indecisive or look to play the safe pass, now the midfielder is bustling with confidence and appears capable of netting in every game. Indeed, only the brilliance of Amir Begovic and the width of the woodwork prevented him scoring on the opening day.
“I don’t know if I’d say it was a like a Stevie goal,” says Henderson on comparison to skipper Steven Gerrard for his goal against Notts County.
“I think I was just so relieved to score because getting a fourth goal at that stage sealed the result.
“It’s good to be off the mark now. I had a couple of opportunities against Stoke. Their keeper tipped one on to the post and there was another in the first half where I probably should have scored.
“I have to keep getting in those dangerous areas and hopefully I can put some more chances away.”
While again employed primarily on the right this season, Henderson has gained an appreciation of the role and his non-stop hard-work ethic provides perfect support for the more delicate skills of Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Iago Aspas and Daniel Sturridge.
It has also endeared him to the supporters who have been won over by both Henderson’s value to the team and his refusal to give up on his Anfield career without a fight.
And while having been overlooked by England since his emergency inclusion in the Euro 2012 squad – Henderson came off the bench in the quarter-final against Italy – surely an international recall beckons for the former under-21 skipper.
Monday will be the first opportunity for Rodgers to call upon his latest raft of signings after a busy transfer deadline day last week.
Centre-back duo Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori, bought for a combined £25m from Paris Saint-Germain and Sporting Lisbon respectively, will be vying for involvement, as will Victor Moses, signed on a season-long loan from Chelsea.
With Kolo Toure hopeful of recovering from the groin problem that ruled him out of last week’s 1-0 win over Manchester United, Rodgers faces a welcome selection headache in the heart of defence given the man-of-the-match performance of Martin Skrtel alongside Daniel Agger against United.
Although Sebastian Coates is likely to be out for the season, there will be a fierce competition for places in the backline with Martin Kelly eyeing a return. Kelly has not appeared for the first team for almost 12 months having ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament in last season’s corresponding fixture against United.
However, Rodgers’ faith in the player is such he was offered a new contract in February, with Kelly now featuring regularly for the under-21s as he slowly regains his fitness.
“I think getting back to where I was at the start of last season is vital,” says Kelly. “Programmes have been put in place at Melwood designed towards getting my speed up and working on my strength.
“Now it’s a case of getting minutes under my belt. I’ve come back into training pre-season and got little bits here and there but at the end of the day you need to play 90 minutes and that’s what I’ve been training to be doing.
“I think taking it one game at a time and getting those 90 minutes under my belt is ideal for me. Getting myself in match situations is vital for what I’ve missed over the past 10 or 11 months.”