In Van Dijk’s absence Jordan Henderson stepped up
Liverpool’s captain was quietly magisterial from start to finish
Jurgen Klopp and Jordan Henderson leave the pitch at Anfield. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images
They came to Anfield expecting fire and light and red-shirted vengeance. They came scenting one of those hair-raising nights when the air seems to throb with wild, skirling possibilities. They may, on reflection, have slightly misread the situation.
In the buildup to this Champions League first leg against Bayern Munich Jürgen Klopp had promised “passion football”, presumably a sub-genre of the usual heavy metal style: speed-metal football, Lancashire pomp-rock.
In the event it went the other way. On a chilly night at Anfield the wind whipped across, the ball bounced and bobbled, a bitter rain began to fall and before long it had become a Jordan Henderson kind of day.
And yes, in a good way. Liverpool’s captain was quietly magisterial from start to finish here. Henderson did not run the game. This was a game that did not want to be run at all but which meandered absorbingly at times.
Instead he sniped around its edges. He made more passes than Thiago Alcântara, a significant stat if only because Thiago passes the ball as though put on this earth to do little else, while on his bad days Henderson addresses the ball with all the finesse of a man toe-punting a stray tin can down the hard shoulder of the motorway.
Henderson made more tackles than anyone else. He won some vital defensive headers. There was one fine long pass right down the centre to Mo Salah.
Towards half-time he produced one of those moments that often get lost in the highlights edit.
Sadio Mané played a casual little nudge into midfield from defence. The pass was intercepted and fed back instantly towards Serge Gnabry. There was a groan on that side of the ground, a feeling of the ground starting to fall away, with no red shirt between Gnabry and the Liverpool goal. At which point: enter Hendo. This was a bravura moment of tracking back, a showboat of a covering tackle as he steamed in and jostled Gnabry aside.
Best of all, Henderson seemed to know something, something that became clear only with the slightly odd spectacle of Liverpool’s captain staying out at the final whistle to applaud the fans at one end while at the other Bayern’s players offered the usual round of thanks to the away support.
By the time Henderson finally left the pitch, still shouting and hugging his teammates, stealing the gloss from the visitors, locking in the moment, one finally saw what he was getting at, the looking-glass nature of this tie.
Henderson law runs as follows: this, the home leg, was really the away leg for Liverpool. But two weeks from now that ravenous front three will find more space at the Allianz Arena. And Liverpool will go to Munich with Virgil van Dijk, their most potent presence, back in the team.
In his absence Henderson stepped up. It is no mean feat against A-list opponents who left Anfield without a shot on goal but who are not to be underestimated even in a period of deadheading and regrowth. The idea of Bayern as genuine underdog always looked a little specious. This is a well-grooved, obsessively proud European football juggernaut.
Bayern’s midfield here was a pedigree thing. It is easy to forget quite what an artist Thiago is, a player who seems to pluck out a handkerchief, take a breath and polish the face of the ball each time before easing it on. Inside him was Javi Martínez, one of the more understated, ludicrously decorated trophy-hoggers in modern football, with six league titles, a Champions League medal and one World Cup to his name.
Liverpool did start with the full adrenal charge. But Bayern kept the ball well at times. On the right Gnabry was purposeful, at one point vaporising Andrew Robertson as he skipped to the line, a rare feat in itself, and probably worthy of a brown plaque on that side of the ground.
Bayern faded after half-time as Liverpool snapped back, led by the captain.
Henderson will no doubt remain Liverpool’s most routinely maligned player, mocked for his meat-and-potatoes style, his ungainly look in this kind of company. Next to, say, James Rodríguez, he can scarcely look like an elite level footballer at all. At one point in the second half he played a throw-in back to the taker with an absurdly exaggerated caution, taking the ball on his instep like a Victorian governess catching an orange in her skirts.
But there is a reason so many excellent managers keep picking him. He plays up to the occasion and never hides from anything, least of all his own limitations. Liverpool did hold steady on a night when they might have blinked. It was thanks in large part to the perfect away performance at home, from a captain who might just have read this tie a little better than anyone else.