James Milner: From bit part at City to big shot at Liverpool

The 30-year-old filled in at Manchester City, but he is fundamental at Anfield. He may not play in his preferred position, but he does so from one of power

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Jurgen Klopp had barely mapped out his way to Melwood before he first commended James Milner’s cerebral comprehension of the game. 

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“A complete football player, the perfect professional, a machine” was the German’s assessment after a 1-1 draw at Tottenham last October; his first fixture as Liverpool’s manager.

Right at the start of his tenure, it was apparent on the training pitches at the West Derby complex that there was very little Milner could not do, and even less that he did not understand.

With Zeljko Buvac, Peter Krawietz and Pep Lijnders helping Klopp bank the smallest details from every session - supported by the performance analysis team - the decision to utilise Milner as a left-back for the season was logical rather than some elaborate experiment.

“It was clear that if Millie was open for this position then everything would be good,” the Reds boss explained.

“It was not a big surprise for us – not because we are geniuses, only because we already knew him and knew how we wanted to play from the position.”

Klopp discussed his vision with Milner in California, during the club’s preparations for 2016-17. Not completely convinced, the vice captain rattled off a series of questions at the Four Seasons Hotel in East Palo Alto, the team’s main base during their United States tour, before ultimately accepting the challenge.  

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On Saturday, when Milner lines up at Anfield against Manchester City - the club he traded for Liverpool on the proviso of more game time in his preferred central midfield role - it may not be in the position he coveted, but significantly, it will be as a core element to his side’s successes this season.

The 30-year-old may have agreed to operate at full-back for the sake of the collective, but it has undeniably enhanced his own importance at Liverpool.

The most touches against Watford? Milner. The most attacking third passes against Everton? Him. The most tackles against Stoke? Yup, him again. Look up just about any Liverpool game this term and his contribution will be notable to both the naked eye and in the numbers.

It is the antithesis of what he imagined when Klopp introduced the idea to him. As the German revealed: “I remember speaking to Millie the first time about possibly playing left-back and said: ‘what do you think?’

“He said: ‘but I won’t get the ball’. I said: ‘forget this, you will get the ball much more often than you can imagine’.”

Klopp, of course, was right. Milner helps Liverpool extend their control in possession, assisting the attack as an intelligent and effective outlet. 

In the 4-1 victory against Stoke on Tuesday, for example, his link-up play with Adam Lallana was sublime before he supplied Roberto Firmino.

The retired England international’s decision to continue his run after feeding the Brazilian distracted markers, allowing his teammate enough space to score Liverpool’s second of the evening. 

Only Andros Townsend (99) has attempted more crosses from open player than Milner (95) in the top-flight this season, but it is not just his forward thinking that fits in with Klopp's demands of the position.

He averages 2.5 tackles per game, 1.3 interceptions, and no player has blocked more crosses in the league (17).

“We didn’t want to make him a left-back, we only want someone who can have an influence on the game from this position," Klopp said.

"That is why we though it might be a good idea."

City, who saw the Yorkshireman turn down a contract extension to join Liverpool on a free in June last year, will be drafting up plans to negate his sway over proceedings.

He filled in at the Etihad, but is fundamental at Anfield. 

Manuel Pellegrini, Pep Guardiola’s predecessor, considered himself Milner’s “number one fan” and described him as “a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big.” 

Brendan Rodgers entrusted him with the vice captaincy and promised he would be at the heart of Liverpool’s operation.

But it is the Northern Irishman’s successor who has allowed Milner to get closer to his main ambition since his switch last summer.

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“When I’m older I want to look back and say that I became the best player I could,” he revealed after signing for the Reds.

Klopp has ensured the player, while already lapped in experience, continues his advancement and education. 

Milner may not be in the centre for Liverpool, but he is very much central to their ambitions and will want to show further signs of that in the final game of 2016.