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jor blimey Henderson engine-room absence leaves Klopp short of horsepower in title race

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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp with Jordan Henderson after the defeat to Brighton. (Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters)

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp with Jordan Henderson after the defeat to Brighton. (Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters)

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp with Jordan Henderson after the defeat to Brighton. (Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters)

There is no single, all-encompassing explanation for Liverpool’s erratic performances in the defence of their Premier League title, but if you were to hone in on a theme it would be ‘stability’ – or the lack of it.

It is the loss of the assurance provided by a finely-tuned system, which purred as all those hours of practice drills transferred from the training ground to match day; the loss of security flowing from the absence of Virgil van Dijk; and the loss of surety resulting from relocating captain Jordan Henderson from midfield, where he would serve as a chief initiator of Klopp’s famed pressing and counter-pressing, to defence.

When Henderson was named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year last season, not everyone was convinced. Many tributes spoke to his humanitarianism more than his influence on the Premier League title race; Henderson’s role supporting NHS nurses referenced by means to justify edging out Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne.

Yet attempts to downplay Henderson’s influence on the field, not just off it, have now been exposed as plain wrong. It is obvious now how integral Henderson the midfielder is to making Klopp’s system function.

Since a defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on October 22, 2017, Liverpool have lost only two Premier League games when Henderson has started in central midfield. Both were against Manchester City, and one of those last July was a couple of days after winning the title.

To break it down further, Liverpool have lost only one meaningful league game with Henderson in a central role in three-and-a-half years.

Henderson would be the first to say he was alongside Fabinho, Gini Wijnaldum or James Milner in those seasons, so it is the enforced break-up of a working trio rather than one-third of it that has been detrimental.

Liverpool have tried to be imaginative in their reconfiguration, Thiago Alcantara offering a chance to be more methodical by realising the best way to protect the defence is keep the ball for prolonged, passing sequences. Manchester City are the masters of that, but it is not in keeping with Klopp’s full-throttle style. Liverpool are at their most dangerous when winning the ball back in the opponents’ final third.

Reanalyse Klopp’s greatest games and that is what stands out, and the charge was invariably led by Henderson. Thiago was signed to be the decorative cherry on the top. Unfortunately, he has come into the team at a moment when the icing beneath has melted.

This is just part of the mosaic of current issues, of course. There are seven equally obvious reasons why Klopp dabbled with what sounded dangerously close to a concession speech when asked about Liverpool’s title chances after the defeat to Brighton.

In no particular order they include the absence of Van Dijk, Alisson Becker, Joe Gomez, Fabinho, Sadio Mane, Diogo Jota and the most vocal of the 50,000 spectators who had helped to make Anfield a fortress.

Liverpool do not look like the same team that won the Premier League because, literally, they are not the same team.

Managers must shrug off injury problems and perhaps the occasional injury crisis so few outside Anfield will sympathise.

The knock-on impact of losing world-class or in-form players is the shifting of others out of position, switching formation from game to game or, as was the case against Brighton, half to half and entrusting those on the fringes whose consistency cannot be relied upon.

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Liverpool have not conceded many goals with Henderson filling in at centre-back, but their capacity to chase, harass, force errors and, consequently, create more chances and score goals has been compromised.

As Klopp hinted on Wednesday, finishing fourth and targeting the Champions League is Liverpool’s focus now. The inconsistency will remain until the treatment room is emptier. With two centre-backs awaiting a debut, at least Liverpool’s midfield will soon be recognisable again.


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