First it was Cristiano Ronaldo who made a move to the Saudi Pro League. Then Karim Benzema, Roberto Firmino and N’Golo Kante all followed Now, with talk of others heading to the Middle East, Jordan Henderson is the latest to be on the radar of a Saudi Arabian club.
It appears that the two sides are close to agreeing a fee, and Henderson reportedly told Jurgen Klopp he wanted to leave the club. It emerged shortly after that Liverpool had named their price – an inflated £20 million ($26m). By the weekend, it could be all sorted.
The move, though, isn’t necessarily cause for celebration on Merseyside. Although Henderson is 33, and coming towards the end of his career, he is still a vital player for Klopp’s side. He will undoubtedly lose his place to either Alexis Mac Allister or Dominik Szoboszlai, especially in the long-term – both are younger and, arguably, better that the Liverpool captain.
But it’s the intangibles that matter here. Yes, Liverpool will have sold Henderson for far more than he is worth, and they could well use that money to help fund the addition of a third young, promising midfielder – with Romeo Lavia and Moises Caicedo both having been linked. Still, captains with years of experience don’t come ready-made.
For some, it is absurd that the Pro League will buy an aging midfielder and quadruple his wages. For Liverpool, it would leave a gaping hold in the fabric of Klopp’s side. They really do need him to stay.
What it all means for Henderson
It is admittedly hard to begrudge Henderson in all of this. At his age, with the litany of high-priced players under the age of 25 Liverpool have brought in, his path to first-team football was always going to be blocked. Add in the fact that Al-Ettifaq are reportedly willing to nearly quadruple his wages, and it’s easy to see why the move appeals to him.
There are strong points of contention here, though. Henderson has routinely shown support for causes associated with the LGBTQ+ community. Indeed, Kop Outs, the LGBT+ group expressed that they were “appalled and concerned” by news of the midfielder’s impending switch to Saudi Arabia.
More criticisms are likely to follow and Henderson the human will have to contend with that.
On the pitch, the 33-year-old has won everything at Liverpool but clearly he sees this as an opportunity. Many will be uncomfortable with it, for various different reasons, but this is the chance to be paid an incredible amount of money to play football in a growing league and be managed by a Liverpool legend. It’s easy to see why he wants to go.
Liverpool are rapidly losing their leaders
For a Liverpool team that needs reshaping, this seems like an excellent piece of business. The Reds have been poor at selling players in recent years, and any fee for a midfielder past his prime can only be considered a good deal. There’s reason for excitement elsewhere, too. Newcomers Mac Alilister and Szoboszlai might not be instant hits, but certainly show the kind of promise that could make them crucial parts of the glamorous Klopp 2.0 that is supposedly being assembled. The addition of a third midfielder, especially a top-level No.6, would only help the cause, especially in the long-term.
It is admittedly difficult to refresh a squad at this rate. Liverpool’s midfield list at the end of last year was bloated, aging and lacking in quality. James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain were all too old or too injured to stay at the club. Fabinho, too, is reportedly considering a significant Saudi Pro League offer of his own. Getting rid of possibly five players who were not part of the long-term plan, and replacing them with three who could be vital for the foreseeable future, can be viewed as a positive.
Still, losing those individuals, especially Milner and Henderson, could act to swiftly destabilise things on Merseyside. So much of Klopp-ball is about good vibes and hugs. These are all elite athletes that have won trophies due to a fine-tuned system and relentless pressing. But they also need to be cared for, encouraged and motivated.
And it was there that Henderson’s value truly lies. A lot has been made of his Liverpool career, almost to the point of mythology. But this is a player who the club tried to sell within 15 months of his signature – with a swap deal for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey supposedly already agreed before Henderson turned down the move. Over his 12 years at Liverpool, Henderson cracked the starting XI, took over as club captain, embraced a role that required him to effectively let go of his attacking impulses and he became one of the great leaders in world football.
He has always been a technically limited footballer. It was the intangible things: leadership, effort, selflessness, that made him valuable. He is, in effect, the ultimate Klopp player, the embodiment of a side that rose to the top without breaking the bank over a three-year period. This is something that cannot be replaced.
Is Henderson still good enough?
Henderson’s playing career is not over. Far from it. Liverpool tweaked things tactically at the end of the 2022-23 season, loosely imitating the box midfield that made Manchester City a treble-winning force. It led to a strong run of form to round out the season, a 10-game unbeaten sequence that saw the club narrowly miss out on a Champions League spot that seemed well beyond reach a few months before.
The change only heightened the national obsession with the exact role of Trent Alexander-Arnold – who effectively became a central midfielder. But it was Henderson’s tactical nous and legs in the right channel, at the top corner of the midfield quartet, that made the system tick.
At his age, Henderson won’t suddenly change, or bring something new. But he certainly offers value in that position, embracing the kind of unglamorous role that has made him so important on Merseyside. Perhaps he will be reserved for big games or even used as a fill-in for the smaller ones. But for a Liverpool side that needs midfield depth, and has let go of three players already, keeping Henderson – even in a more limited role – makes sense.
And with just two years remaining on his contract, there’s little financial harm to having him around. Liverpool are usually conservative in the transfer market, with much of the talk from the club focused on the minutiae of wage budgets and transfer allowances. Henderson’s £190k ($250k) per week doesn’t help to that end, but it’s hardly nightmarish either. Putting the financials to one side, getting rid could do more harm than good.
The Saudi Angle
And what of the Saudi perspective? This is a statement signing, if only for what it represents. Al-Ettifaq were a middling side last year, and not one of the four clubs that have been allocated funding from the country’s Public Investment Fund. Gerrard is not an elite manager, and Henderson isn’t a game-changing talent like Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo. But, as was the case for Liverpool, the optics mean more. Indeed, if a mid-table side, with no other European big names, can snatch the Liverpool captain, who else is out of reach?
It was reported that Bernardo Silva, fresh off arguably his best season at Manchester City, was close to a Saudi move. His teammate Riyad Mahrez has also been subject of attention from the Pro League. And even if they reject moves, another emigration, of equal shock value and perhaps more money, will likely happen by next week. Henderson’s massive salary will likely be dwarfed by the end of the summer. Ronaldo’s arrival didn’t necessarily blow up viewing figures overnight but the addition of Benzema, Kante, Ruben Neves, and half of Chelsea’s bench just might.
This is what the league wants. Star power attracts eyeballs. But it is the high-level role players, a gaggle of Hendersons, that can have a real impact. If most of the 16 sides in the league manage to pinch a handful of big European names, this thing might just grow.
What do Liverpool do now?
As for Liverpool, the Reds could be about to approach a pivotal season without their captain and leader. Usually Champions League stalwarts, they are in the Europa League this campaign and have invested uncharacteristically heavily to get back into the top four – a race that will be made more difficult by the improvements of both Arsenal and Manchester United.
There will perhaps be another signing here that will, once again, offer promise for the future. It is far-fetched, but someone like Federico Valverde, who could be the odd man out at Real Madrid, would quell discomfort with relative ease. Still, it’s hard to see a team that refused to spend big on Jude Bellingham go for another, perhaps equally expensive, player – no matter the extra funds that will be brought in. Moises Caicedo is another to have been linked.
So, that Henderson wanted to leave, and was likely swayed in some way by the money, will certainly have a psychological impact. There is perhaps comfort to be drawn from the fact that the Reds captain isn’t playing elsewhere in the Premier League. But that he has gone abroad for a big payday is not so easily accepted.
And this will all, of course, be played down. Virgil van Dijk will probably wear the captain’s armband, with Andy Robertson, Alexander-Arnold or Mohamed Salah to be the second choice. But those internal changes, and more good Klopp vibes, can’t mask over the fact that Liverpool are set to lose a crucial player. Perhaps most importantly, the rest of Europe, those with captains of their own to hold onto, will now have to perennially be on alert. They could be next. — Goal