Jason Harris looks at Liverpool’s most suitable candidates to become captain with Jordan Henderson really struggling to overcome his injuries.
There is an old adage that captains are chosen but leaders are born.
Over a long period of time, Liverpool has been blessed with great leaders. The golden era of the 70s and 80s saw the likes of Tommy Smith, Emlyn Hughes, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen lead the club with distinction.
The 90s was a difficult period of time with inconsistent performances becoming a factor (an issue that remains to this day). However, the club was not lacking in star power with the likes of Ian Rush, John Barnes, and Paul Ince leading the club at different points of the decade.
The new millennium arrived with the oft-injured Jamie Redknapp and fan favourite Robbie Fowler as co-captains, but manager Gerard Houllier was intent on taking the club out of the “spice boys” era and moving it into a more professional direction.
Sami Hyppia was a ‘statesman’ type selection for the role but a young prodigy by the name of Steven Gerrard was seen by many as the man in waiting. Gerrard was producing stellar performances but still had erratic tendencies on and off the pitch.
October 2003 was the right time for Gerrard to take the mantle and he kept it in his possession for the best part of 12 seasons to be the longest serving captain in the club’s history.
The modern era of Liverpool fans have not been as fortunate to see the club continue their trophy-laden history of the 70s and 80s, but they can all identify with the leadership qualities that Gerrard consistently brought to the team.
Whether it be a stunning goal, a crunching tackle, or a wonderful cross-field ball, Gerrard delivered when it was required. The only thing missing from his resume was an elusive Premier League triumph. When Gerrard wore the red of Liverpool in a competitive fixture for the last time in 2015, it was clear that a large hole still needed to be filled.
An observation to be made about being a club captain is that you don’t have to be the best player in the team to fill the position.
Tony Adams did not carry that title in the great Gunners sides in the 90s and early 00s, Roy Keane was certainly not Man United’s best player during their golden era, likewise, John Terry was not Chelsea’s star man in the Mourinho era at the Blues.
However, those three men along with Patrick Vieira were men of substance. They would demand a high level of performance from their teammates every time they took to the pitch and in response would receive a great deal of respect at every turn.
Brendan Rodgers in his wisdom gave the role of captain to Jordan Henderson, who while being an important player in the squad, did not look to have that necessary leadership facet to his game.
The past two seasons has seen the 26-year-old riddled with knee and foot injuries and has seen him play in 41 of a possible 73 league games. His deputy over that period has been the ever dependable James Milner. The former Man City winger is as solid a pro as you will find, but leadership is another side to the game.
The question for Jürgen Klopp and his support staff is whether these two players are going to be the leaders for the next period of time. Ever so steadily, Klopp is making this team his own and part of that is looking at options in the squad to fill these important roles.
There was a time not too long ago that the options looked extremely thin on the ground, but more recently a couple of candidates have become noticeable.
The similarities that Jöel Matip shares with Hyppia do not end with the fact that both are tall central defenders. Like Hyppia, Matip came to the club as a low profile signing, arriving as a free transfer from German club Schalke last summer.
Matip quickly became a fan favourite with his defensive awareness, calmness with the ball at his feet and ability to cause some problems in the opposing penalty box. While it may not look like it at first glance, Matip is physically very strong and has handled the likes of Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a minimum of fuss.
Injuries and an untimely ban after rejecting the chance to play for Cameroon at the African Cup of Nations, saw him miss key games when the Reds suffered a drop in form at the start of 2017.
On his return, Matip developed a strong understanding with Dejan Lovren and while the defence, in general, remains a work in progress, there are definite signs of improvement as the performances against Stoke, West Brom and Watford have shown.
At the age of 25, Matip has not yet reached his peak as a player and the best is certainly yet to come. The benefit of having a central defender as the captain is that he can see the whole pitch in front of him and be able to make clear judgements on how the game is progressing.
As Matip has been at the club for only a season, he may need to earn a few more credits to claim the armband, but he is certainly someone that could do the role if called upon to do so.
The other option who has staked a claim this season is Emre Can. The young German has been a player which has divided opinion since his arrival from Bayer Leverkusen in 2014. The manager at the time Brendan Rodgers was keen to develop the defensive midfielder into a member of his back three formation.
It was a move that did not suit Can and led him to produce inconsistent performances with many fans and pundits questioning his position in the side. An opportunity arose for Can to move back to his favoured position when Gerrard departed the club for the MLS, and Lucas Leiva and Henderson had their battles with injury.
With fellow German Jürgen Klopp in charge, Can returned to the midfield and began to flourish. The strength of Can is his imposing stature, ability to protect the back four, along with a level of confidence in his own ability.
As this season has progressed, Can has become a more rounded player, combining his shielding duties with an attacking threat which he displayed for all to see with a stunning goal against Watford. He has now scored more goals (five) than the previous two seasons combined (four).
If you assess his game closely, Can has that type of edge which makes a good leader. He certainly does not take a backwards step and has plenty of growth to come in his overall game.
If Henderson had stayed fit this season, it is highly likely that Can would have been looking for another club in the summer. It is a concern that he has not put pen to paper on a new deal, but the German has stated his willingness to stay at the club and hopefully, this can get sorted out in the near future.
It is clear that Liverpool needs players to stand up on a week by week level if they want to achieve their title dreams. If the club decides to stick with Henderson and Milner as the official leaders then that is fine, but there is certainly no harm in assessing other options.
In a season where there has been plenty of progression in a number of areas, both Matip and Can have emerged as bright lights on the leadership front and all Reds fans will hope it is just the beginning.