Remarkably, Jurgen Klopp at 35-year-old Jurf continues to turn to James Milner to establish some midfield. Remarkably, Jurgen Klopp believes he has no choice but to turn to Milner to secure this order. And it’s still remarkable that it continues to work.
That Klopp will once again turn to Milner to ensure balance, intensity and transitional excellence – all of which was missing in the middle of the week against Real Madrid – for an urgent home win against Aston Villa was eloquent.
Klopp could look at Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a player whose only role on the Liverpool team is to provide overstrain and energy from the middle of the pitch – to add depth (and level) to a midfield that can stop too often.
Klopp could turn to Naby Keito, a player he was addicted to in the 42nd minute in Madrid. Keita was so extremely worldly in training, Klopp said during the week that he simply couldn’t let him out of the first phase of the Champions League quarter-finals. It was such a mess that the boss rubbed it before the end of the first half. But … these two weeks still haven’t happened? Klopp usually eats bad decisions on his own. He will blame his judgment or tactical setup. Sub-area Keite can were rotated as a manager error (during the week he tried to cross lne). Keita’s start at the weekend would show the player faith and confidence.
No. Klopp was looking for balance and in Milner he opted for a player who lives for balance.
Milner is not only someone who can set the tone in the middle, with and without the ball, but so often he can bring the best out of a suitable full-back on his side. There are immaterial things here – they trust Milner and so keep pushing – and here are the tangible things: Milner’s move is to slide out and back from his place in the middle to create the back three, overload one side of the court and allow the side defender on that side to fill forward.
Milner was at the center of all the good in Liverpool’s game on Saturday. It wasn’t like previous games this season, in which Liverpool struggled to break stubborn defensive blocks, the ball moving with little urgency, hard to come by. Saturday was the tempo of the show. The ball flew back and forth. Possibilities were created. The probabilities were missed. It had an echo of the 2019/20 screen, Liverpool’s front line disguised the necessary ruthlessness, but it continued to run out of options and eventually found a breakthrough.
It was a much-needed response to the lively performance presented by the side team in the middle of the week. Everything was wrong to tactical setup, Klopp corrected on Saturday. Roberto Firmino returned, allowing the team to connect the game better from behind. And with Milner and Wijnaldum, Klopp brought a pair of mixers between the boxes that could cover the perfect kickbacks and add two commendable “third runners” in the final third.
It is also unusual that Klopp made the decision both Milner and Wijnaldum instead of one plus Thiago. Maybe the manager rested Thiago before the return match against Madrid, but it would be weird if a player who didn’t start the first game rested, while most of the team that started in Spain also started on Saturday. It was either a tactical choice or an example of eliminating potential muscle concern – although Thiago eventually entered the field, hinting that he was the first.
Still: Milner’s start was a smart move. Its effect was immediate and profound:
He finished third in the team in touches, followed only by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nat Phillips
He was in the presses in the first place.
He finished second in the clashes.
He filled out the most progressive passes
He created three record-making campaigns, more than Diogo Jota, Gini Wijnaldum and equated with Mo Salah.
It was a versatile performance. And more than tactile numbers and stuff, Milner continues to permeate. Milner leads all Liverpool players outside of Jordan Henderson in my completely mythical fire-the-ball-at-a-teammate-and-then-run-at-them-them statistic. If you saw him in the school yard, you would think that the child does not understand the meaning of this sport. However, Henderson and Milner have a way of tensing the ball in a teammate’s legs to help step up the pace, and then to run in a teammate to force them to play a sport – in Henderson it often ends with a loop around a teammate who has just passed it to him, either by pulling the marker out of position or creating a nice overload.
Klopp decided to move on. Milner provides balance and stability. But how long can a manager rely on a 35-year-old? You could argue that he’s the top four or zero this season, so the manager should turn to Milner, no matter what the rest of the journey is – or at least until Jordan Henderson returns. But Milner has proven prone to injuries in the last 18 months: since the start of last season, he has missed 28 games due to a series of injuries.
Milner’s request to offer the same old Milner displays at the same old level has already bitten the manager and player this year, and Milner picked up a tendon injury that left him seven games off at the height of Liverpool’s injury problems.
And then what next season? Take a look at the long-term shape of Liverpool’s midfield and notice the trend:
- Gini Wijnaldum – who will probably leave the club when his contract expires in the summer.
- Fabinho – who may still need to be called in to help rescuers this or next season.
- Thiago – who is expected to turn 30 and has uneven injuries.
- Jordan Henderson – who is expected to turn 31 and has started accumulating more punches; Henderson has picked up six different injuries in the past 18 months
- Naby Keita – who has his own rough injuries
- Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – see above.
- Milner – who will turn 36 next season and whose uneven injuries we have already covered.
Klopp, who relies on Wijnaldum (who will leave in the summer) and Milner (who will be closer to 40 than 30 in the summer), is the indictment of the remaining group of midfielders.
Milner will always offer those wonderful, rah-rah, high-intensity performances. That’s how it’s built. And with that, he will marry with an understanding of how to modulate the pace of the game; its properties are the best.
Klopp now has the opportunity to trust his most loyal lieutenants or set up a team for next year – trying to set up something type of chemistry / form with two Keita, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Curtis Jones, and Thiago ob Fabinhu (and eventually Henderson). This is not an easy choice.