In the end, the 1-1 scoreline in Sunday's England-Spain match at the Under 21 European Championships will be cause for many to talk of the England fight back, of an entertaining game and a good result and a brave display against a superior opponent. Which conveniently forgets that for the vast majority of the match it was only Spain's inability to find a cutting edge around the box that stopped the score from turning into the farce the rest of the game was for England's up and comers. In truth it was a game where England was made to look severely lacking at the most basic technical level. And that will largely be papered over in the light of an acceptable result.
At the back, hyped United prospects Chris Smalling and Phil Jones looked uncomfortable almost every time they found themselves in possession, frequently bypassing midfield with aimless balls towards distant attackers who after a time mostly just stayed up the pitch waiting for the hoofs they knew were coming. Meanwhile there was little off the ball movement—players just put their heads down and headed upfield. When they didn't, they usually just got bypassed anyway. And within that almost wholly underwhelming performance by Stuart Pearce's u21 side, Liverpool's new arrival Jordan Henderson hardly had a chance to exert his influence on the match.
It would be blinkered to blame him for looking largely anonymous, though, within those restrictions imposed by England's 4-4-2 and old fashioned, agrarian approach. Within a framework that saw him bypassed by those around him and outnumbered by Spain's midfield trio, Henderson in fact played as well as one could have expected of him. Which is to say he seemed at the least competent and comfortable whenever he did get involved. Which was mostly whenever Phil Jones wasn't hoofing the ball over his head from behind while the forwards ineffectually stampeded down the pitch in front.
When he was able to get involved in the game, the signs were at least promising from a Liverpool perspective. Henderson did a good job of ticking things over in midfield, looking to move the team up the pitch with one and two touch passes, handing the ball sideways or backwards to allow himself to move a few yards further upfield while avoiding pressure: Be patient, maintain possession, move up the pitch as a group, and wait for holes. And on those rare occasions when he was allowed to help England into fairly advanced areas of the pitch through exchanging possession with teammates in the middle of the park, he indeed did provide a number of dangerous through balls that on another day might have been converted. Of all the England players, in fact, he's the one who would have looked least out of place in the fluid and technical Spanish midfield.
He showed a good first touch and a calmness under pressure, and while he did make the occasional raking pass to switch play or create an attacking opportunity, he also showed an unselfish willingness to keep things turning over while doing the simple things right. Which is something that always seems as though it should be simple except that if it was then half the England team would have been doing the simple things right and they wouldn't have found themselves overrun from one end of the pitch to the other. But Henderson, at least, showed he could do those little things right even if his teammates quickly abandoned the platform he was trying to build in midfield for the attackers to play off of. It wasn't an approach far removed from his play during much of the past season with Sunderland.
With that in mind, soon after Liverpool completed his transfer, Football365 posted a reader and Sunderland fan's opinion on Henderson and his style of play. It's since been passed around a fair bit in Liverpool quarters, but on the back of yesterday's display with the England u21s it deserves another look. Or a first look, as the case may be:
After the World Cup, many of us began to really notice the sheer lack of technical talent in the England set-up. By this I'm not talking about crossing or shooting ability, I'm talking about close control, quick passing and most importantly of all, tactical awareness. Jordan has these traits in abundance and, far from comparing him to the likes of the great Xavi and Iniesta, his approach to the game is very much as a team member rather than as a maverick. He won't drive through the middle of the park and smash a last-minute cup final half volley into the corner when he's got cramp, but what he will do is keep the game ticking over and, when the chance presents itself, show that he knows how to whip in a dangerous cross or play a nicely weighted through ball...
For me, the problem with this style of play is that you are only as good as the players around you. We all know that Barca excel due to the fact that each and every player is comfortable on the ball. Unfortunately for Henderson, there have been times this season when some of his team mates haven't been on the same page as him, but I would imagine that he'll settle in nicely in a very talented Liverpool midfield.
On the surface, it's a description that seems remarkably close to what one might give to Lucas—right down to the way such a style of play and approach to the game has at times made Henderson a target of Sunderland boo-boys who have grown impatient at one too many sideways or backwards pass, a situation generally kept in check by his local status. The defensive bustle and at one time unexpected steel of Liverpool's Brazilian clearly isn't in Henderson's locker right now, and whether it's something he's capable of developing is an open question. But still, from what little he was allowed to show against Spain he is a smart player. A pass and move player who keeps calm and looks to build possession rather than going for the Hollywood-ball with his first instinct. The sort of player improved by similarly talented teammates approaching the game as a cohesive unit—and one who can easily seem out of place when put in a by times either disorganized or direct set-up such as England's on Sunday.
As he played yesterday evening, he would have fit in—and perhaps have even looked exceptional—in the Spanish side. Similarly, as he played on Sunday evening, he wouldn't have looked out of place in the Liverpool side that went on late-season romps over the likes of Fulham, Birmingham, and Manchester City. He didn't particularly stand out as part of the England u21 side, true, but in the end that might be more an indictment of the England u21 team than of Jordan Henderson.
Against weaker opponents they will face such as Ukraine and the Czech Republic, games where he may also be given more freedom to roam, it could be that he shows a more attacking side to his game. And over the long term it's hard to know whether it is a more incisive attack or more determined defense that will become his focus. But the most important building blocks for his future are there already: Technical ability, footballing intelligence, and calmness under pressure. Because even if much of England's methodology and play—from Stuart Pearce setting up with only two midfielders against Spain's trio to defenders Smalling and Jones ignoring Henderson in favour of the long-ball—conspired to make him appear largely anonymous on Sunday, Henderson's actual play was as solid and promising as it could have been in the circumstances.
At least it was promising for those more concerned with what his play might say for when he returns to Liverpool later in the summer than in what it says about the likelihood of English success in the current tournament.