When James Milner signed on a free transfer in the 2015 summer transfer window, most Liverpool F.C. fans were not particularly excited or disappointed. The common rhetoric was that the Reds signed a solid player who was good but nothing spectacular. Well, after a full season of watching Milner in a red kit, these claims have largely been dispelled. Milner had a fantastic first season on Merseyside, showcasing his creative talents as well as his unreal fitness levels. Even though he still has his very poor games where the Englishman can make it look impossible to simply complete a pass, when evaluating Milner’s season as a whole, his performance was quite impressive.
After being a utility squad player at Manchester City, Milner arrived at Anfield with assurances that he would finally get to be a full-time central midfielder. However, Milner largely underwhelmed at his preferred position at the beginning of the campaign, showing an inability to add anything more to the side than an unreal fitness level. As a result, when Jürgen Klopp took over, Milner was redeployed as a utility player, contributing in central midfield as well as in more advanced attacking positions. This change proved to be fantastic for Milner’s form as he was able to record seven goals and 14 assists in all competitions including 11 assists in the Premier League, ranking fifth best in this category. Milner excelled in his passing and crossing despite much criticism surrounding these two aspects of his game. In the English international Milner was able to make 2.3 key passes per game, besting Three Lions teammate Dele Alli’s mark of 1.6. Milner also created six more chances than the Tottenham midfielder, despite playing five fewer domestic matches. Milner’s ability to create scoring opportunities is vastly underrated as these statistics illustrate. Most people view Milner as a hard working midfielder that does not offer very much creativity, yet it is clear that Milner is actually one of the best creative midfielders in the Premier League. His passing accuracy of 78.8% is a common area of criticism for Milner, but again, he outperformed Tottenham Hotspur F.C. star Alli in this area by 2.2% while averaging a whopping 17 more passes per match. Milner’s performance this season dispelled all of the notions that he cannot be an important player on a top level team. After former Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini’s made a number of extremely complimentary comments regarding Milner’s time with the Sky Blues, the Englishman really illustrated why Pellegrini was so effusive in his praise.
The one area of Milner’s game that has never been questioned is his unreal work rate. A perfect example of Milner’s fantastic fitness levels is the comment FC Barcelona full back Dani Alves made a few months back: “The most annoying [to have ever faced] was James Milner. He follows you forward and follows you backward. It’s very difficult because he attacks you and defends you”. This quote from Alves perfectly exemplifies Milner: a tireless runner who will never stop pressing you. This attribute is perfect for Klopp’s gegenpressing system where closing down defenders is imperative to the success of the German’s tactics. Milner averaged 2.2 tackles per match, again, better than the notoriously consistent pressing machine Alli who recorded only 2 tackles per match. Additionally, Milner also outperformed Alli in his tackles won percentage at 77.9% compared to Alli’s 74.6%. Milner’s willingness to chase the opposition all over the pitch is one of the biggest reasons why he has endeared himself to Klopp. His never ending ability to close down and harass the opposition is perhaps Milner’s best attribute, and one that will ensure he remains a prominent part of Klopp’s plans in the future.
Klopp’s first summer transfer window and preseason are bound to bring numerous changes to the Liverpool squad that may affect Milner’s current role. Despite his status as vice-captain, Milner is going to have to compete for a start in central midfield against the likes of club captain Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Marko Grujic, Joe Allen, and a new signing that is bound to be brought in at the position. No matter what position Milner hopes to play, there will be fierce competition for spots forcing Milner to continue his excellent performances of 2015-2016. His inconsistency can still be an issue as he is known to have games where he is a complete no show. At 30 years old, Milner is Liverpool’s most experienced player, but his place in the team is far from ensured. This year he was one of the Reds’ best performers, but Klopp is going to work to maximize the performance of his squad through intense competition at every spot to ensure the best player is on the pitch. Especially with significantly fewer fixtures next season without European football, there will be an immense amount of pressure on Milner to keep his place. However, even if Milner does not have a starting spot come the first match of the season, his versatility to play in the midfield and as a winger is very valuable. In fact, I believe Milner is perfectly suited to this utility role as his form was much better when asked to play numerous positions rather than having to stick to one. Ultimately, no matter where the Englishman is stationed on the pitch, he can always be relied on to work extremely hard and put in a solid 90 minutes. For this reason, it is highly likely that Milner will continue to be a valuable member of the squad regardless of whether or not he starts. Hopefully, in a utility role rather than as a backup.