Liverpool fans spent much of the summer waiting for Jurgen Klopp to sign a quality left-back to go along with his other summer signings like Sadio Mane and Georgino Wijnaldum.
But as enter the new year with the Reds the closest challengers to leaders Chelsea, albeit with a six-point gap between themselves and the Blues, one of the reason for Liverpool’s success this season has been the play of James Milner.
The 30-year-old Milner wasn’t part of the Reds 18-man squad for the opening weekend win at Arsenal before coming into the side in an unfamiliar left-back role for the 2-0 loss at Burnley. While Alberto Moreno was less than impressive in the 4-3 victory at the Emirates Stadium, Klopp could well have axed Milner from the defensive position following defeat at Turf Moor, particularly with the former replacing the latter in the closing stages of the defeat to the Clarets.
Yet, Milner has since gone on to make the starting left-back position for the Reds his own. Granted, chances are he would favor a more familiar midfield role, but at this point in time; the former England international is undeniably first choice left-back for Liverpool and making a solid case for being the best in his position in the country this season.
A WhoScored rating of 7.37 is not to be scoffed at, particularly for a player operating out of position. In fact, of those to have made at least five appearances at left-back, only Danny Rose (7.50) and Daley Blind (7.43) have gained a better Premier League rating this season.
In fact it was his assist that saw Roberto Firmino end his barren run against Stoke on Tuesday night as Liverpool romped to victory, with Milner combining the ideal blend of creative quality and tenacity to help redevelop as a full-back. Of all defenders this season, the Englishman has been directly involved in more goals (7) than any other player. Granted, Milner is helped in that he is Liverpool’s primary penalty taker, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that he is utilizing his creative talents from deep.
Indeed, only Andros Townsend (99) has attempted more crosses from open player than Milner (95) in the Premier League this season.
He is able to press forward from left-back to provide another outlet for his teammates, which he does so effectively. In such an attack minded system also, it’s a boost that a player who is renowned for his attacking talent is able to play in defence. This not only avoids any possible selection headaches that may be thrust Klopp’s way, but means Liverpool have the means to spring attacks at the drop of the hat, with such an influential performer playing an effective role in moving the ball from defence to attack.
Of course, there’s a risk that comes with playing an offensive-minded player in the defensive third, but Milner is renowned as a player who does not shirk his defensive responsibilities. An average of 2.5 tackles per game is second only to Jordan Henderson (3.9) of all Liverpool players, while 1.3 interceptions per league match also ranks highly, allowing for Milner to not only successfully rob the opposition of possession, but instigate attacks too. Meanwhile, no player has blocked more crosses in England’s top tier this term than Milner (17), further reinforcing a statistically calculated WhoScored strength of ‘defensive contribution’.
The most impressive aspect of Milner’s transformation, however, is how quickly he has adapted his game to suit the needs of his manager in an unfamiliar position. With Moreno as defensively suspect as he is, Liverpool could well have benefitted from the acquisition of a new left-back over the summer, yet Milner’s redeployment has been a smooth transition, which has evidently boosted the fortunes of the player and club.