Around eight minutes into this game, Kyle Walker got the ball in the centre of the England defence and looked up. Harry Kane was dropping deep, out of the forward line, ready to receive. Jadon Sancho was wandering up the right wing with that marvellous, languid gait of his, the sort where you can never quite tell whether he’s about to execute a triple elastico chop or strolling to the kitchen to make himself a sandwich. To the left, Michael Keane and Harry Maguire were the less exciting options. But hang on. Who was that blur of white streaking up the centre of the pitch, making the run in behind?
It’s like Andy Warhol almost put it: in the future, everyone will be England’s No 8 for 15 minutes. And on a night where England’s superheroes took centre stage, it was one of their more humble performers who provided perhaps the game’s most interesting subplot. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? Was it one of those niche midfield positions with a Spanish name that you can never quite remember? In a way, it was a little of each. For a few fleeting moments at Wembley Stadium, Jordan Henderson was set free.
Well. He played a bit higher than usual. For a bit. And yet this in itself was an arresting enough sight. For some years now, Henderson’s role for England has been more nightwatchman than burglar: often the deepest midfielder at the base of the triangle, shuffling play along, plugging the gaps, deterring the break.
Remember that Monty Python sketch, Bicycle Repair Man? In a team full of superheroes in capes, Henderson offers something different: a tightening of bolts, a greasing of spokes, a pumping of tyres. Whenever your midfield is being broken, or menaced by international playmakers, Henderson is ready.
Here, however, something was different, and it didn’t become apparent until we saw Henderson hurtling like Gerd Muller into the centre-forward position. Walker didn’t see the pass, by the way. Perhaps because the last thing you expect to see these days is Henderson on the shoulder of the last man, trying to spring the offside trap.
“I’m playing more of a deeper role, a more disciplined role,” Henderson admitted back in November. “Now and again you may be picking a pass or two in behind, making something happen, but when we’re attacking – especially at Liverpool – I’m focusing on protection, being disciplined, being careful, worrying about counter-attacks, things like that. So it’s hard to do both.”
Now, with Eric Dier locking the gate behind him, Henderson could kick off his shoes and scamper. There was another stirring, unrewarded run into the right channel as Kane dropped deep with the ball and looked up for the pass. A couple of hopeful Lampard-ish forays into the 18-yard box. And then, almost as quickly as it was upon us, the Henderson-as-CAM era was over. Dier was injured. Henderson was required to stand guard once more.
And there he remained for the remaining 72 minutes of the game: not the marauding Henderson but the applauding Henderson. There he was, exhorting England’s defenders to wake up after Tomas Soucek got a free header in the England area. There he was, knocking the ball away after a promising Czech advance. There he was, the first man on the scene, mopping up the mess after Ross Barkley had done a whoopsie near the right touchline.
And there he was, one of the last men on the scene as England celebrated their opening goal. While everyone was lauding Raheem Sterling for his two-yard tap-in, Sancho for his slightly misjudged cross and Kane for his defence-splitting pass, Henderson was the one who had started the move a few passes earlier. Nobody remembered that. Nobody really seems to remember very much of anything Henderson does these days.
Which is a curious phenomenon, when you consider that this is a player who has played in a Champions League final, a World Cup semi-final, is chasing a Premier League title this season, England’s most capped active player, with a 50th appearance likely against Montenegro on Monday. It’s a decent enough CV, and yet outside the red half of Merseyside, Henderson still seems the sort of player more likely to elicit a sad sigh.
His only crime, really, has been longevity. Euro 2020, should he make it, will be his fifth tournament before the age of 30. English football has always lusted after the next, shiny new toy. Declan Rice is the latest. Phil Foden may be the next. James Maddison, Harry Winks and James Ward-Prowse are all getting talked about as future England midfield generals. At the root of this, I think, lies some deep, unshakeable idea that somehow, England can do better than Henderson.
Well, can they? It rather depends what you want from your central midfielder. If it’s stepovers and crunching tackles, silvery bursts of pace and Instagrammable diagonal passes, then no, perhaps Henderson isn’t your man. If it’s an experienced midfielder who hardly ever gives the ball away in the most crowded area of the pitch, then let’s talk numbers.
So far this season – one mildly afflicted by injuries, remember – Henderson has played more passes per 90 minutes than any Premier League midfielder other than Jorginho, whose average pass length tends to be shorter. He has given the ball away less often than anybody else in his position. In the Champions League, meanwhile – the real quiz – he’s given the ball away once in six games, less often than any other midfielder in the competition. And here again, he was England’s most influential, most invisible midfielder: more than 100 touches, 95 passes, another cap in the bag, another win for which he will get virtually none of the credit.
But then, that’s the lot of your bicycle repair man. Henderson doesn’t do this for match balls or glass trinkets. He’ll be wryly aware that Tomas Kalas, who inadvertently tapped the ball into his own net six minutes from time, has now scored more goals for England than he has. Perhaps in his dreamier moments, he wonders about the paths not taken, the futures not seized, the spotlights not claimed. But I doubt it. And besides, we’ll always have those 18 minutes of pure freedom.