2016 was a pretty exceptional year in all kinds of ways. The seemingly ludicrous became reality and our perception of normality was redefined. From a Liverpool perspective, it was most definitely a year of enormous success- a year which saw Liverpool back on the map as a genuine force to be reckoned with once more.
For all the progression the club have made, 2016 also saw Liverpool lose two cup finals for the first time in their history. The Europa League final defeat at the hands of Sevilla was particularly painful given the memorable journey to Basel which preceded it.
A second-half capitulation rendered Daniel Sturridge’s spectacular opening goal ultimately meaningless as Unai Emery’s side would go on to win the competition for the third successive year.
A bitter disappointment at the time, the Sevilla game has since become something of a turning point for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, though. A summer transfer window and intense pre-season provided the foundations for Klopp to stamp his mark of authority and prepare his squad for the new season.
Liverpool have surprised everyone so far this season and although it is difficult to single out one star individual, the likes of Sadio Mané and Adam Lallana, in particular, have earned much-deserved praise for their stellar performances. Gini Wijnaldum has grown into his role superbly of late and is making a superb impression in his debut season at the club, while Joël Matip has already proved a remarkable piece of business on a free transfer from Schalke.
Yet for all these success stories, there is one player whose performances have exceeded expectations above any other. The majority of Liverpool fans were desperate to see a new left-back arrive in the summer, such was the continually erratic nature of Alberto Moreno’s performances.
Jamie Carragher even tweeted in no uncertain terms that Liverpool had to buy a new left-back in the summer after the Spaniard’s woeful display in the second-half against Sevilla.
Leicester’s Ben Chilwell had been pursued but Klopp was not prepared to pay over the odds for the teenager and decided not to follow up any alternative options. He already had his man for the job- James Milner.
After arriving on a free transfer from Manchester City in the summer of 2015, Milner began life at Liverpool as a central midfielder under Brendan Rodgers before being used more frequently as a right winger following Klopp’s arrival. A return of 14 assists and 7 goals marked an impressive debut season for Milner, but few could have foreseen him becoming such a pivotal figure for Liverpool this season.
The idea that Klopp would stick with Milner as his first choice left-back for the season was not one which was met with a great deal of confidence by many Liverpool fans, it must be said. Yet Klopp is a top class manager for a very good reason and his ability to alter players’ positions to maximize their potential is reflective of his tactical eye and coaching abilities.
He’s done it with Henderson, Lallana and Wijnaldum too. After the manner of Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat to Burnley in the second game of the season, during which Milner struggled badly, the signs were not promising and he looked far from comfortable in his new role.
Since then, however, we have seen Milner establish himself as one of the finest left-backs in the Premier League, playing as though he’s played this position for his entire career. It is testament to not only his exemplary attitude but also his footballing intelligence that he has adapted to such a specialist position with great aplomb.
Strong in the tackle and clever in his reading of the game, Milner is very rarely ever caught out defensively and appears to know exactly where to be all the time. His shackling of the likes of tricky wingers such as Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling have seen him come out well on top against usually very dangerous customers.
Not only has Milner been solid as a rock at the back, his offensive contribution has also been excellent, timing his raids forward up the left flank to join in with the attack and offer a genuine threat from out wide. By virtue of being a right-footed player, Milner’s incisive infield passes create angles and opportunities that most orthodox left-backs don’t provide, while his experience of playing as an attacking midfielder means he is very effective in and around the penalty area, often playing quick one-twos and making intelligent runs into the box.
Given that Liverpool dominate possession against the vast majority of opponents, it is important for the full-backs in Klopp’s system to be comfortable in possession and be available to receive the ball at will. Milner certainly does that and has the ability to virtually dictate and control games from the left-back position, which is something quite unique in football more generally.
Add to that his experience and leadership qualities, as well as his 100% penalty record, Milner’s contribution to this Liverpool side is invaluable. There are certain players who will always put in at least a 7/10 performance and often better- Milner is someone Klopp simply wants to have on the pitch whenever possible.
Whatever Liverpool end up achieving this season, Milner has already established himself as a crucial cog in the Red machine. The likes of Markus Babbel, Gary McAllister, Fabio Aurelio and Maxi Rodriguez have shown the success that can come with signing players on free transfers in the past. Milner can certainly be considered right up there with the very best value signings Liverpool have made in recent years- he might just be the biggest bargain of them all.
Written by Joel Rabinowitz