Henderson proving to be right successor to Gerrard
Real leaders take penalties. Skippers stand their ground from 12 yards. The armband inspires, it doesn't intimidate.
Men are made in such moments, but Jordan Henderson was found wanting.
When he allowed Mario Balotelli to take the infamous penalty against Besiktas, his authority allegedly slipped away.
That was the kneejerk reaction. That was the popular misconception.
Joey Barton called him a clone, a superficial Steven Gerrard. He wore the jersey and the armband but they were not enough.
A costume alone doesn't make a superhero.
But Henderson knew better. Unlike the myopic Balotelli and the idiotic Barton, he saw the bigger picture. Good leaders lead. Great leaders delegate.
He lost the penalty battle, but he's winning the war to succeed Gerrard.
If the Reds win against Blackburn Rovers tomorrow and follow the road to Wembley, Henderson should lead the way.
His transformation has engineered Liverpool's post-Christmas recovery.
Brendan Rodgers tinkered with the formation, pulling one out of defence to add a greater attacking urgency and fluency, but the tactical tweak depended in large part on Henderson stepping out of a shadow.
He had to shake off Gerrard.
Football is littered with sad stories of a legend's physical decline usurping his authority.
Even when he was hung over, George Best remained the first port of call for teammates.
Even when the thighs thickened, Bobby Moore collected the ball in poor positions.
Even when he was tightly marked, Thierry Henry demanded possession when other Gunners were better placed.
And, until Christmas, when the Liverpool lads looked up, they looked for Gerrard. They looked for their leader, on autopilot, almost every time.
Only when Gerrard was moved away from his error-prone quarterback position did Henderson step in.
Suddenly, more passes arrived at his feet. They could not be filled with clay.
He had to move forward. His water-carrying days were largely done. Joe Allen took over those duties. Henderson could no longer play crab. He had to create. He had to keep moving forward.
And he's been a revelation.
Two screamers inside a week made it five for the season. His sand wedge chip onto Daniel Sturridge's head was his 11th assist and, most extraordinarily, Liverpool are unbeaten in the 13 matches in which Henderson's worn the armband.
Barton and the blinkered, bandwagon jumpers could not have been more wrong.
Henderson's problem wasn't his substandard Gerrard impersonation. It was Gerrard's presence. He needed him out of the way.
Where a legend's support was once inspiring for an impressionable kid from Sunderland, now it's inhibiting.
Last season, the relationship worked because Gerrard's dramatic positional shift initially confounded opponents and Henderson performed heroically to cover for his captain's slowing legs and occasional blunders.
Remember that title-deciding slip against Chelsea? Henderson wasn't playing.
Whenever he lined up alongside Gerrard, both for club and country, in the latter half of last season and the start of this, their awkward balance of power destabilised the midfield.
Gerrard's presence no longer helped. It hindered.
When the 34-year-old veteran was pushed out of harm's way, Henderson stopped playing babysitter. When Gerrard was ruled out with injury, Henderson cast off the shackles entirely.
From punch-line to punisher, the captain's stats are astounding. Against Burnley, according to Opta, he took more touches than anyone except Emre Can. He completed the most passes in the final third and the most passes overall.
He doesn't play for the camera at penalties. He's not interesting in being Superman. He's everyman. He's everywhere.
Philippe Coutinho's rise and the improvement of both Can and Alberto Moreno have played their part in liberating Henderson, but the skipper has liberated Liverpool.
A leader's real authority is tested in his absence and no other player was missed more than Henderson in the Europa League defeat against Besiktas.
He isn't any less of a man because he refuses to do his talking on Twitter. He commands respect for his quiet dignity in the face of adversity.
Henderson didn't become a captain when Gerrard was injured. The first stitches on his armband were sown when the world called him a clown, when he was written off as one of Kenny Dalglish's three stooges along with Charlie Adam and Andy Carroll.
Those men, older men, didn't survive at Anfield. Their careers are yet to fully recover.
Of those three so-called jokers, there was only one leader in the pack.
Yesterday, Henderson was linked with a move to Barcelona.
And it wasn't a joke. Nobody laughs at the Liverpool captain now.
Lallana: Armband spurs Henderson
Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana believes captaincy is bringing the best out of teammate Jordan Henderson.
In the absence of Steven Gerrard, who returned to training this week after a hamstring injury which has sidelined him for six matches, the Reds vice-captain has taken the armband and led from the front.
His goal against Burnley on Wednesday was his second in as many games - taking his tally for the season to five - and he also provided his 11th assist of the season for Daniel Sturridge to also score against the Clarets.
Liverpool have not lost any of the 13 matches in which Henderson has worn the armband from the start and Lallana, who knows something about leadership from his time at Southampton, believes his England colleague has grown with the added responsibility.
"He is unbelievable. He has matured as a player over the last two seasons and he has kicked on another level even with the armband," said the £23-million ($48m) summer signing.
"I was lucky enough to be captain at Southampton and it does give you that little bit extra and it seems it is doing the same to him."
Henderson believes that the key aspect to Liverpool's recent resurgence is down to the new-found confidence among the squad.
The 24-year-old has been one of the key components to the upturn in fortunes but he was quick to play down his personal contribution and instead focus on the team effort.
"We're really solid as a team together and with the players we've got, like Philippe (Coutinho), Raheem (Sterling), (Daniel) Sturridge, Adam Lallana and players like that going forward, we can hurt anyone," he told the club's official website.
"It's all about confidence. If we're solid from the back right the way through, they'll always score goals and create things.
"That's been key for us and the formation has been brilliant as well. We've been playing with high pressure and intensity and we just need to keep it going."
Lallana's form has also taken an upturn in line with the team's, and there is no doubt he is benefiting from the 3-4-2-1 system which allows him the freedom, alongside Philippe Coutinho, to exploit the space behind the central striker.
"I've had a few injuries and been in and out of the team for whatever reason but I am thoroughly enjoying it at the minute," Lallana added. "I am staying fit and contributing in the system the manager has got us playing."
"It is great to be playing with such good players and the results are on the up. We have a great rhythm and a good bit of consistency and are keeping clean sheets as well; we've turned a corner since Christmas and we are really looking good.
"It was a difficult start (to the season) but all the signings have bedded in now and we have players back fit and we have found a system, we are playing really well and are causing teams problems.
"Confidence is a big thing in any team and we have that in abundance and I think it is showing."
With Liverpool now at full pelt in the race for the top four, just three points behind third-placed Arsenal, they must now divert their attention to the FA Cup.
Championship side Blackburn visit Anfield tomorrow with a place in the last four at stake.
"It is a great competition in which we have a great chance of getting to Wembley in the semi-final," said Lallana.
"We won't underestimate Blackburn, we will dust ourselves down, recover well and go again on Sunday." - Wire Services.