Let’s Talk About The Captaincy

There has been a trend amongst some Liverpool supporters of late to discuss Jordan Henderson’s role in the team and declare that he ‘shouldn’t even be starting, let alone captain’. This is not an article about the former Sunderland man’s abilities as a player, despite the desire of some to put him down at every available opportunity. Personally I rate him and believe that there’s a large chunk of supporters that simply don’t appreciate what it is that he’s asked to do by his manager. Regardless, I don’t want this to become an excuse for those that dislike him to jump on the agenda of hatred and start telling me that he’s rubbish and should be sold. If you can’t see how much of a drop down it was from Emre Can to James Milner in the Manchester City match and how Hendo would have been able to offer so much more than the vice-captain on that occasion then there’s not an awful lot to discuss on that front.

Instead this is a piece about what it means to be captain, what the job entails and whether or not it actually matters all that much who wears the armband. I actually believe it to be a reasonably tricky topic. I think we’ve been somewhat spoiled in the Premier League era, let alone in Liverpool’s illustrious past. Reds can point to men like Souness, Hyypia and, of course, Steven Gerrard. Even away from Anfield we’ve seen such big personalities as Keane, Viera and John Terry captain some of our rivals and have perhaps been lulled into giving the role a false degree of importance. Even Henderson’s most ardent critics have been able to give me a sensible answer about who should have been made the club captain instead of him when they declared that they wanted the midfielder stripped of the honour. People react to the idea of Henderson being captain as though the club never lost a match when Gerrard wore the armband. Let’s try, then, to have a sensible discussion about the captaincy.

Does It Really Matter?

Because Steven Gerrard was one of the greatest ever Liverpool players, some people look to the example set by him and believe that that is the minimum that we should expect from players wearing the armband. What they fail to acknowledge when using Gerrard as a stick with which to beat the likes of Henderson is that our former number eight played with some truly exceptional leaders during his time at the club. Where is Henderson’s equivalent to Jamie Carragher, for example? Which member of our defensive line-up, prior to the arrival of Virgil van Dijk, even bothers to talk to the rest of his backline, let alone the entire team in the same way that Carra did? People want a captain who can score goals; who will be in the referee’s ear for the entire match; whose performances will lift his teammates and win games all on his own. We want Steven Gerrard mark two, in spite of the fact that he was a once in a lifetime player.

The current manager has certainly demonstrated that he doesn’t believe that the captaincy is as important as some Liverpool supporters do. In Henderson’s absence of late he’s given the armband to James Milner, Simon Mignolet, Philippe Coutinho and Dejan Lovren. That’s a list of players that includes a thirty-two-year-old midfielder who is slower than the passage of time, a goalkeeper who might as well be a mime for all of the talking he does, a lad who has been desperate to get away from the club since August and a defender who most people would ship out of Anfield at the first opportunity. Jürgen Klopp himself admitted in the wake of giving the armband to Coutinho back in December that ‘it’s just an armband’. We might like to romanticise the job, but the reality is that the majority of work done by a Liverpool captain actually takes place off the pitch rather than on it.

What Does It Take To Be A Captain?

Jürgen Klopp is all about team ethics. Whatever we may think as individuals about bis decision to sell Philippe Coutinho, the midfielder made clear that he no longer wanted to be at the football club and that’s an attitude that this manager won’t abide. He has stated in the past that he thinks every player on the pitch should be a ‘captain’ in their play, being brave and leading by example. If it doesn’t bother the German who has the actual captain’s armband, then, what exactly is the job of a captain? I mentioned a moment ago that most of the captain’s work is done off the pitch and I think that’s very true. Have a look at how many players have talked in the past about the importance of the welcome they were given by Steven Gerrard after arriving at the club. It’s not just a couple but pretty much everyone we signed whilst he was still playing for us.

It’s not just welcoming players that he did for us, either. Under Brendan Rodgers he was even tasked with texting players to try to convince them to join us. Now that’s more to do with the ability of the Northern Irishman to attract players than it is about what a captain is supposed to do, of course. Nevertheless, it’s indicative of the fact that captain’s are asked to do an awful lot behind the scenes. Perhaps a quiet word here if a player is unhappy, or a moralising speech to lift heads after a demoralising defeat. You need to have the respect of your teammates as well as be able to speak to the manager on someone’s behalf if the time calls for it. It’s why some people have been suggesting that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has the makings of a future club captain, because of how well he’s presented himself in post-match interviews such as when he stepped in to protect Philippe Coutinho a while ago.

If Not Henderson Then Who?

As I mentioned earlier, very few people who are keen to tell me Henderson’s not fit to be Liverpool captain actually offer sensible alternatives. They often put forward somewhat vacuous statements, such as ‘he should be our best player’ or ‘he needs to lead by example’, but this fails to take into account the fact that not every player is good at rising to the challenge. For some, the expectation placed on them by being made captain is something that they don’t necessarily know how to deal with. I do wonder whether Dejan Lovren would’ve rushed out to try to tackle Leroy Sané towards the end of the match against Manchester City if he wasn’t Liverpool captain, for example. Instead, because he did, he was out of position by the time the ball came back into the box from Aguero’s cross and was nowhere near being able to clear it. Are those talking of Oxlade-Chamberlain as a future captain taking into account the fact that he might not want to be? He may well feel that he has enough to worry about with his own game without needing to be concerned about the team overall.

For me, then, the captaincy should go to a player that sees themselves as a leader and doesn’t need it to be thrust upon them. They need to have the ability to lead even when things aren’t going well and not shy away from the pressures that the armband will inevitably put on them. I don’t want the captaincy to be given to a player who might lose some of their game because of it. Roberto Firmino, for example, is a lad that leads by example but I think he should remain unburdened and allowed to simply concentrate on being the most complete striker in the Premier League. One man who I do believe fits the bill is Virgil van Dijk, but I don’t think the Dutchman should be given the duty just yet. After all, so much of what he’ll need to do involves off the pitch behaviour and he’s barely unpacked his boxes yet. The reality is that Henderson is likely to remain out captain until he’s no longer at the club. So if you don’t like him, strap in and shut up.

There Is No Perfect Captain

Whatever Jürgen Klopp decides about the future of the Liverpool captaincy, it’s important that supporters realise there is no perfect man for the job. There are as many people who want to jump on Henderson’s back as want to offer him their support, for example. Likewise giving the armband to Virgil van Dijk doesn’t immediately solve all of our problems. He was on the pitch when Everton scored their goal in the FA Cup derby, for example, and they’ve barely had a shot on target in any recent matches. Had he been captain at the time then there would have been countless tweets asking why he wasn’t leading the defence or screaming down the referee’s ear. There may well be a point in the future when Liverpool have another player similar to Steven Gerrard in terms of both ability and temperament, but that still looks to be a long way in the future. Trent Alexander-Arnold is perhaps the best chance of that happening, yet he’s still so young that he’s years away from being that sort of player.

The point being, whatever happens next we perhaps all need to reassess what we expect of and want from a Liverpool captain. What happens behind the scenes is something that we can never truly know about, but it’s interesting that Brendan Rodgers appointed Henderson as captain, Jürgen Klopp let him keep the armband and Steven Gerrard himself regularly sings the former Sunderland man’s praises. If he’s good enough for those three but not good enough for our fan base then I’d suggest that we’re unlikely to ever be pleased as a collective. It’s also important to admit that vast portions of the fan base disliked Gerrard’s captaincy style. He rarely spoke to referees and often only looked after himself on the pitch if he was having a bad game. We look back with rose-tinted glasses, but speak to Anfield regulars from his time at the club and they’ll tell you that he rarely received unadulterated praise. Perhaps what some Liverpool supporters want more than a leader is a scapegoat. Right now that’s Jordan Henderson, but who will it be when he leaves the club?

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