Mohamed Salah’s sublime skill saw off West Ham but it would not have been possible without Liverpool’s versatile captain
The Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, celebrates with Mohamed Salah after the Egyptian’s superb second goal in a 3-1 win against West Ham. Photograph: Clive Rose/PA
The Guardian-Jonathan Wilson
Nine minutes: Mohamed Salah gave the ball away. West Ham advanced down the left. Salah charged back, which is usually a sign he has done something for which he feels he needs to make amends. But he couldn’t recover in time.
Michail Antonio was already moving at pace when Trent Alexander-Arnold got to him, and was able to sling a dangerous cross into the box. Tomas Soucek, the Czech Fellaini, rumbled into the penalty area. He didn’t have to check his stride. Neck muscles flexed, he readied himself for a fourth headed goal of the season. And suddenly there was Jordan Henderson, nipping in front of him to head the ball to safety.
Sixty-eight minutes: Liverpool cleared a corner and Alexander‑Arnold slung the ball out to the left. Xherdan Shaqiri swept it instantly to the top of the box.
Salah’s first touch was sublime, his second beautifully deft and Liverpool suddenly had a 2-0 lead. About 10 yards behind him was Henderson, having sprinted 70 yards. He was the first to congratulate Salah and, in the unlikely event the Egyptian’s first touch had been less than sensational, he would have been on hand to collect the loose ball.
Salah was the obvious reason Liverpool beat West Ham. His two goals were both brilliant. But equally necessary was Henderson. He has become for Liverpool something more than a player.
He is a captain of the most inspirational kind, not just relentlessly energetic, but a constant cajoler and organiser – as these games behind closed doors have proved. The soundtrack to modern Liverpool is a constant Wearside bark, as though a collie at sheepdog trials had decided to commentate on itself. But Henderson embodies something more: he has become the spirit of all that is best about the club, somebody endlessly and selflessly willing to do what the team need rather than what necessarily comes most easily to him.
Talk to any of Henderson’s former coaches and they will tell you his greatest asset is his willingness to learn. It is that which has underlain his apparently endless capacity for reinvention.
When he first emerged at Sunderland, Henderson played on the right side of midfield. It was Steve Bruce who moved him into the centre, but very much as a box‑to‑box player.
At Liverpool, asked to play as a holder under Brendan Rodgers and then Jürgen Klopp, he initially struggled. His great breakthrough came after being shifted to the right of the midfield three. But when in autumn 2019 he had to revert to that deepest-lying midfield role, he excelled. And now, he looks a perfectly serviceable central defender.
The absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joël Matip and Fabinho prompted Liverpool to turn to their 12th starting central defensive pairing of the league season, Nat Phillips partnering Henderson, as he had after half-time in the win against Tottenham last Thursday.
But this looked a test far more likely to expose a player unfamiliar in the position. In the Premier League this season, nobody has scored more often from set-pieces, more from crosses or with more headers than West Ham.
That’s why that first header against Soucek was so vital, to show Liverpool were not to be cowed. In the end, West Ham did score, with their sixth corner of the game, but by then Liverpool already led 3-0 and there were only three minutes remaining.
Any assessment of Liverpool at the moment has to take into account their injuries. Liverpool are such an interconnected unit that changes in one area can have a major impact elsewhere.
This has been a season of firefighting all over the pitch and the changes of shape and personnel mean it’s unwise to draw firm conclusions but the first half seemed to demonstrate the danger that Thiago Alcântara, for all his excellence on the ball, could slow Liverpool down.
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In part, of course, that’s the point. His role is to protect possession, to bring a sense of calm and to give Liverpool the option of playing in a more reserved style. But circumstances – the raft of injuries, including to Thiago, and the lack of time on the training pitch with the compressed calendar – have made a gradual integration impossible.
The result was that, before the break, Divock Origi and, particularly, Salah made a number of runs that went unseen, or at least that resulted in no attempt to feed them in, while the flow forward from full-back, which at its best can seem irresistible, was often interrupted, Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson left waiting for the pass rather than running naturally on to balls played in front of them.
But in the second half, Liverpool were more direct and more purposeful –and never more so than in that stunning second, that went from box-to-box in two passes – more like the Liverpool of last season.
Underpinning it all was Henderson. He blocked crosses. He tracked runs. At one point he challenged Soucek when he must have known doing so would mean a kick in the head. He took the ball from Alisson to orchestrate play. And always, always, he shouted.
In the end, Salah’s artistry won the game – but it was Henderson’s spirit that made it possible.