In an interview last week, Jordan Henderson was asked about his deputy James Milner leading the assist charts in the Champions League. “He has told a few of us that over the last couple of hours, to be fair!” the skipper joked. Milner has been enjoying the recognition. And so he should. It’s absolutely what he deserves.
Mouths continue to water over the bargain deal for Mohamed Salah – £35million for a player of his capabilities is undoubtedly a snip in a mind-boggling market. Likewise, the £10million addition of Andrew Robertson, who has thrilled fans with his firm challenges and crusading runs, has been hailed as excellent business. Yet fans are largely neglecting the shrewdest move of the generation – the Bosman deal for Milner back in 2015. The Englishman had reached the end of his Manchester City contract and was set to enter a supposed phase of decline, but he has proven immensely valuable for the Reds over his two and a half seasons at the club.
Milner’s oft-cited versatility is peerless. He can play on either side of the defence, in any of the three midfield slots and has even been utilised on the flanks on occasion. Stick him in goal, and he’d probably still do a job.
Liverpool have not been blessed with significant depth under Jurgen Klopp, making a utility player like Milner a vital part of the squad. You would be hard-pressed to find another player in world football who can perform at such a consistent level across the park.
And if you doubt his importance, ask yourself if we would realistically have finished on the top-four last season with an erratic Alberto Moreno at left-back.
The occasional collapse has seen supporters bemoan a lack of leaders, but Milner, who was made vice-captain just a month after his arrival, is noticeably vocal and sets an excellent example for his younger players with his perennially phenomenal work-rate.
The 32-year-old did not cost Liverpool a penny, but already they’ve gotten 116 games out of him. 116 games in which it’s surprisingly difficult to recall a costly mistake. His combination of underwhelming performances and stand-out displays makes him almost the epitome of a solid – a player who rarely exceeds eight out of ten but seldom falls below six.
Consider for a moment whether the same could be said of Liverpool’s other midfielders.
There can be few legitimate complaints about the vast majority of Jordan Henderson’s performances, but every so often there is a lacklustre display which unleashes a torrent of online criticism.
Emre Can, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of Milner in many respects. For every game he gloriously dominates, there is another where his inexperience shows in poor decision-making and rash challenges. Where Milner earns a respectful smattering of applause, Can frequently draws frustrated groans from the stands.
As for the more offensive players, Georginio Wijnaldum is a paradox, performing according to the standard of the opposition, Adam Lallana’s campaign has been blighted by a protracted return from injury and there remain question marks over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after a ‘quieter’ spell of late.
Liverpool face an intense battle with some top-quality rivals for a place in the top four, so should Klopp now turn to the most reliable member of his squad on a more regular basis?
Milner was undeniably sublime against Porto, repelling their attempted advances whilst also playing a key role in his side’s relentless counter-attacks. He was, almost literally, everywhere. It might well have been his best game for the club.
But he will not be able to hit those heights week in, week out. That’s clear. What’s also clear is that Klopp has deployed his trusted midfield workhorse almost perfectly this season, introducing him from the bench to steady the ship, starting him when rotation is necessary and handing him the odd rest. This arrangement seems to suit Milner.
It seems strange to urge the continued limitation of his game-time after lavishing him with praise, but there are players better suited to certain situations. For example, when, as is increasingly the case, lesser teams ‘park the bus’ against Liverpool, the Reds would be better served by the restless energy and creativity of Adam Lallana than by Milner’s relatively straight-forward, simplistic approach.
With six midfielders, all of whom are regular starters, Klopp would be wise to continue to chop and change. The ever-dependable Milner will offer a cool head as the season reaches its climax, but the vitality of his younger team-mates may be preferred by the manager.
The main point here, though, is that the value of Milner should be appreciated. Players who operate nicely under the radar rarely get the plaudits, but they are in fact among the most important.
The former England international has been widely heralded as the ultimate squad player but proved last Wednesday that there remains a capacity for brilliance at both ends of the pitch.
Many of his team-mates polarise supporters, but the ‘boring’ James Milner is admired by virtually all of them, delivering the goods when called upon without fail.