The roar that greeted the final whistle at Anfield last Sunday said it all. It had been a near perfect afternoon for Liverpool. Victory over Manchester City had given any Kopites who doubted their side’s title credentials belief that they could end their 24-year wait to be crowned champions.
Now just four games stand between Liverpool and the Premier League trophy - win all four and Steven Gerrard will be holding it aloft on 11th May. It is a tantalising prospect for Reds fans but while so much that occurred in the 3-2 win had them dreaming, there was one major disappointment on the day.
Jordan Henderson’s late sending off was largely forgotten as fans and players alike rejoiced after a hard fought win but as the focus turns to another crucial game this weekend at Norwich City, the midfielder’s absence is something of a concern.
The former Sunderland man is one of only three outfield players in the Premier League to have started every game so far this season and has been substituted only once, with 20 minutes to go in the 5-1 win over this weekend’s opponents, Norwich, back in December.
There can be no complaints over the sending off. There was no malice but it was a dangerous challenge and, by the letter of the law, deserving of a red card. The punishment for such an offence is a three-game ban. Harsh, given the circumstances? Perhaps, but Liverpool and Henderson have little choice to accept it and move on.
The task facing Brendan Rodgers now is how to go about replacing a player who has offered so much to the side throughout the season. The Liverpool manager has earned plaudits for his ability to switch formations from match to match depending on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses but finding the right balance without the energy of Henderson will provide another test of his tactical acumen.
Liverpool have wrongly been labelled as a counter-attacking side in some quarters in recent weeks but you need only have watched the first half of clash with Manchester City to see that could not be further from the truth. Rodgers’ side look to press high up the pitch and win the ball in dangerous areas before attacking at speed and arguably no player is more crucial to this than Liverpool's No.14.
Not only does Henderson have the work-rate and stamina required to press from the first minute to the last, he has also developed the game intelligence to know when and where to do so effectively. There are no headless chicken tendencies, Liverpool are well drilled when it comes to hassling opponents and it is Henderson who so often leads the charge.
He may have effectively done his captain’s running for him at times this season but the former England Under 21s skipper has proven himself to be far more than a water-carrier. Only four players have created more chances from open play than Henderson (60) and while just six have been ‘big’ chances, that is twice as many created by Arsenal's£40million man, Mesut Ozil, and Chelsea’s Brazilian playmaker, Oscar.
A passing accuracy just shy of 87 per cent only drops to 81.41% in the final third, indicating a level of composure and technical ability that is often overlooked due to his admittedly extraordinary athleticism. Henderson’s four goals and seven assists is also a handy return and it appears even more impressive when compared to the men most likely to replace him.
Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva, one of whom is expected to be tasked with filling the gap left by Henderson, have a combined total of no goals and zero assists. Of course, both players have been asked to play very different roles to the one Henderson has fulfilled and between them they have not amassed as many minutes of the pitch as their fellow midfielder.
However, it would seem clear that without the dynamism of Henderson, Liverpool will lose something in attack. That is not to say that Allen and Lucas cannot come into the team and make an impact, though. Indeed, both have proven themselves capable of doing so from the bench in Liverpool’s past two games.
Lucas was introduced at half-time with the scores level at Upton Park. It was one Brazilian for another as he replaced Philippe Coutinho and on the face of it, it was a defensive change. In reality, though, it allowed Liverpool to gain more control of the midfield and build the pressure that ultimately led to the winning goal. Lucas playing the through ball that led to the penalty.
A week on it was Allen who was introduced with the aim of shoring up the midfield in a bid to wrestle a modicum of control away from Manchester City. Daniel Sturridge was the man to make way and again the change indirectly led to Liverpool’s winner. Liverpool pushed Coutinho further forward and with Allen providing fresh impetus in the middle of the park, they were able to escape their own half on a more regular basis than at any time in the second period and when the chance fell it was the move advanced Coutinho on hand to put it away.
In terms of pressing, neither possesses quite the same vivacity as Henderson but Allen in particular has been one of the league leaders’ most effective players in this regard throughout the season. Like Henderson, it is in his intelligence and understanding of when best to hassle and harry the opposition that has impressed as much as the relentlessness of it.
With Sturridge also a major doubt for Sunday’s game at Norwich with a hamstring strain, there is the distinct possibility that both Allen and Lucas will start at Carrow Road.
Were that to be the case, Liverpool would almost certainly appear to be more solid defensively and would be confident of dominating the midfield. The issue would be whether, despite that control, they would have the same attacking impetus from their central midfielders that they have had throughout their run of 10 consecutive league wins.
In the aforementioned games against West Ham and Manchester City in which Lucas and Allen, respectively, came on to great effect, they had Henderson alongside them to make the forward runs and go beyond the strikers. With him missing, would either of his replacements be able to do so as effectively?
Allen has shown himself capable of picking up good positions higher up the pitch in recent months, not least at Old Trafford where his darting run led to him being bundled over to win Liverpool’s second penalty. He would be the obvious choice to play the more advanced role of the midfield duo but the bursts from deep that Henderson has provided are unlikely to come from the Welshman.
Simply put, Liverpool are going to have to adapt. There is no like-for-like replacement for the former Sunderland midfielder but they do possess two good quality players with different strengths who can fill the void.
It may require a more measured approach at times but with a base of Gerrard, Allen and Lucas an attacking trio of Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez would surely have even more freedom to express themselves knowing there is cover behind them.
Such personnel would also allow Liverpool to use either of the two formations they have favoured lately, a 4-3-3 with Coutinho and Sterling flanking Suarez or the 4-4-2 diamond with Coutinho at the tip and Sterling up alongside the Uruguayan. It would not be the first time the teenager has fulfilled the role, he did so in the second half of last season's Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park, and his pace and dribbling ability would undoubtedly be a worry for the Norwich defence.
Of course, given that Brendan Rodgers has employed a whole multitude of systems this season it is entirely plausible that he will spring another surprise on Sunday. Creating a master plan that does not involve Henderson, though, is a new challenge for the Liverpool manager this season. Whether he can come up with one to see the Reds through the next three games remains to be seen.