This was the biggest challenge of Jordan Henderson’s career. The challenge of stopping the best midfielder on the planet in a World Cup semi-final.
The fact that Henderson was probably England’s best player and yet was pushed to the absolute limit showed just how good Luka Modric is. The fact Modric got even better when Henderson went off showed how well the Liverpool captain did.
The legs were tired, the hamstring was tight but Henderson strained himself to try and not give in to that even if he was stretched to breaking point with the workload demanded of him.
In the first-half time and again Henderson just got himself in front of Modric enough to stop him opening England up. Modric worked his way into the penalty area, shaped to shoot, cross, or cut the ball back but Henderson jockeyed and blocked and made the angle disappear. Then on half-time he did it again as Modric appeared to find the purchase for a shot – only for Henderson to thwart him.
Gareth Southgate did not change tack for this semi-final. He did not give in to the temptation to bring in Eric Dier and place himself alongside Henderson in a deeper, double pivot at the base of midfield to cope with Modric and Ivan Rakitic who have been the most accomplished pairing at this World Cup. Instead he made that adjustment with the personnel he had to reduce the space and eat up the turf around Modric.
England, in essence, tried to block Modric in. Tried to shackle him and deny him any room. Harry Kane dropped deeper, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were asked to squeeze the space and Henderson was the barrier ahead of Modric.
The problem was, as all good players do, Modric eventually adjusted and dropped deeper and to his right to try and orchestrate the play. It meant he became more an issue for Alli to deal with than Henderson who had enough to handle plugging the gaps which began to emerge as the pressure grew and England’s composure dropped in the second-half – they just could not keep the ball – and Croatia dug deep into incredible reserves of resilience and belief.
It took intense concentration from Henderson and discipline but he also snatched at chances to retain possession and over-hit forward passes or hurried them. Or maybe he was over-eager in what appeared to be a clear instruction from Southgate to find Raheem Sterling early so he could get a run at the Croatian central defenders of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida who he could burn with his pace.
It was a huge responsibility for Henderson who may not wear the captain’s armband but is as influential figure on the pitch as Kane, constantly cajoling, organising, barking instructions and providing that screen ahead of John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker who threw their bodies on the line.
Henderson knows from bitter experience the threat posed by Modric having faced him in Liverpool’s Champions League Final defeat to Real Madrid in May but he will not have expected to face him again on this stage, at this stage of the tournament. It has been an astonishing season for the 28-year-old who may not even have been in the England squad, never mind the fulcrum of the team, had Southgate not been the manager and invested so much trust and belief in him.
Sam Allardyce had been underwhelmed by England’s midfield options after Euro 2016 to such an extent that he openly talked about the possibility of trying to bring in Steven Nzonzi who is now in the France squad that has reached the final. Allardyce clearly felt that Henderson was not good enough. Well that, at least, has been disproved and was again demonstrated as he blocked early in the second-half when Ante Rebic appeared to have the space to shoot. That space soon disappeared and it did so again when Maguire barrelled forward, over-ran the ball and suddenly it seemed Croatia could break. But Henderson hunted it down and then did it again.
He pressed and pressed and pressed once more. The anxiety was inevitably a concern although Henderson played a superb through ball to Sterling which almost gave him a sight of goal. It was interesting that while his team-mates began to snatch at the ball more Henderson grew calmer and looked to play a more measured pass while not relinquishing his role.
Even so Croatia’s pressure told and the outstanding Ivan Perisic equalised. Now what? England were up against it; holding on but extra-time came.
Extra-time for the third successive time for Croatia and for the second time in three matches for England but, soon into it, Henderson was inevitably spent and gave way to Dier. He had given everything and England missed him when he went off.