James Milner has been a wonderful servant for Liverpool FC and football in general. Without trying to sound like we are eulogising him, the man has had a colossal amount of success. This is true even though he has played large swathes of his career at very unfavourable teams.
Despite his advancing years, however, it almost feels like that his career has moved in reverse. Liverpool’s veritable Benjamin Button-midfielder has miraculously improved with age. Thusly, he’s also been recognised as an important cog in their title-chasing machinery.
However, even Brad Pitt’s landmark movie character reached a point of expiration. Unfortunately for Milner, we shall see that Jürgen Klopp’s streamlining and rejuvenation of his squad could mean that his place is under threat.
Spotrac.com also shows that his four-year contract will expire at the end of the season. With all of this in mind, there are mounting concerns over his vulnerability in the side. Through statistically analysing Milner’s season compared to his main internal and external competitors, we shall see that his Liverpool career could be over by the summer.
Within his 17-season Premier League career, Milner has proven to be one of his generation’s most versatile players. In this time, he’s played in almost every conceivable role except centre back and goalkeeper. One of his major strengths is that he is dependable in a variety of positions. Klopp has utilised this throughout his spell at the club.
By far his most popular position, and also the one which Klopp prefers to play him in, is the centre of midfield. According to transfermarkt.co.uk, so far this season the 33-year old has played in this position 26 times, scoring five goals and helping with four assists.
With injuries and quite unexplained departures at right back, however, Milner has also been used fleetingly on the right side of defence. He’s been positioned here six times this season, as Liverpool have had to make-do following injuries to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez.
Reserve right-back Nathaniel Clyne’s loan move to Bournemouth, rumoured to have been used as a counter-weight for the huge fee spent to take Dominic Solanke to Dorset, looks erroneous. Consequently, for parts of the season, Milner’s adaptability has been used to shore up the back line.
Finally, Klopp has also utilised the sort of energy which defined Milner’s earlier career when required. In the days when he played for his native-Leeds United, Newcastle and Aston Villa, Milner was often deployed as a shrewd wide man. This season he has played only one game on the left of midfield, against Burnley. In this fixture, Klopp chose an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation. Milner contributed in this game with a goal as Liverpool won 3-1.
The only other game this season where Milner has played out wide, on the right-wing, was in a brief cameo against Watford. Here, Milner came off the bench to replace Xherdan Shaqiri with only around 16 minutes left to play. Presumably seen as no more than a utility option in this instance, Milner’s usefulness and experience across the park are still clearly his core strengths.
Losing his place?
Competition is fierce within the Liverpool squad and unfortunately, Milner is not helped out by his more advanced age. In every position which Milner has played in so far this season, it largely looks like Liverpool should have decent cover for. This season, Klopp has preferred a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1 formation. He has used the former 18 times this season, and the latter 11 times. Whilst the 4-3-3 appears to be a safer bet for the experienced journeyman to win a starting place, we’ll see that he must rely on his key traits to keep out his rivals.
Starting in the centre of midfield, Liverpool already have a wealth of talent. Generally, the Liverpool boss prefers to have a more defensive minded central player. This is usually either Jordan Henderson or Fabinho. Therefore, Milner’s best bet is to gain a wide spot. In this role, he can feed the high-intensity transition from defence into attack, which Klopp favours.
The major obstacles for Milner gaining a regular starting place are Georginio Wijnaldum and Naby Keïta. Adam Lallana is also a popular pick for Klopp, yet, he is still coming back from serious injury. In contrast to the previous two, however, Milner’s level of experience is crucial. Milner’s know-how is most noticeable in the former-England international’s style of passing.
When compared to the rest of the Liverpool squad, statistics from whoscored.com show that his competitors are among the most reliable passes of the ball. Milner’s 84.2% pass success does not compare to Wijnaldum and Keïta’s respective 91.1% and 87.8%.
However, Milner has contributed four assists this season. In contrast, neither Wijnaldum nor Keïta has accumulated any between them. The more we dig into the statistics, the more we can see that Milner contributes to Liverpool’s midfield in a very different way to the other two.
Whilst Wijnaldum and Keïta are much more likely to play short passes, Milner focuses on switching the ball quickly. Milner averages 4.2 accurate long passes per 90 minutes (p90). In contrast, Wijnaldum and Keïta produce 1.9p90 and 1.4p90 respectively.
We can start to see that Milner’s experience comes with its benefits. His average of 1.9 key passes p90 batters his competitors’. Of these key passes, ironically, 1.2p90 of them are short. This can be attributed to the Yorkshireman’s sterling judgment when moving the ball. Surely this has been crucial when understanding why Klopp is so keen to keep him in the side.
A French twist?
With Liverpool still having six fixtures of the English Premier League left to play, naturally, the transfer talk has already started. One of the major names being linked with a move to Anfield next season (amongst other places), is Paris Saint-Germain’s Adrien Rabiot.
Liverpool fans were slightly overzealous in foretelling his transfer last Sunday. It was claimed that the French international was in the crowd to watch their 2-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur. Despite it being revealed that the chiselled, PSG baseball cap-wearing onlooker was just a fan, this didn’t stop fans from salivating at the prospect. One man who may not be so enthusiastic by his transfer could be James Milner.
Whilst perhaps a slightly more defensive midfielder, Rabiot’s athleticism and sheer all-roundedness make him capable of playing as a dynamic, box-to-box midfielder. The Frenchman is elegant on the ball and fierce in the tackle. We can see similarities in his statistics and style of play with Milner’s. Immediately, we can sense that the latter’s role is under threat.
In his 22 games this season for PSG, Rabiot has looked exceedingly sharp. Whilst Thomas Tuchel has generally favoured his side to use a 3-5-2 in Ligue 1, he has used a multitude of formations this season. When opting for the 4-3-3 or the 4-2-3-1, Rabiot has often been deployed as a counter-weight to the destructive Marco Verratti. This corresponds similarly to Milner’s presence next to either Henderson or Fabinho.
We’ve already underlined Milner’s influence in moving the ball quickly and effectively through pumping long balls forwards. Whilst Rabiot does not quite compete with Milner in this sense, he does have equally effective ways of breaking the lines. The Frenchman currently makes 1.2 successful dribbles p90. On the other hand, Milner’s 0.5p90 is another telling reminder of how his game has been forced to adapt due to the limitations of his body.
Despite Milner making 3.3 attempted tackles p90, 0.2 more than Rabiot, his success rate is much lower. Rabiot, on average, made 2.9 successful tackles p90; Milner could only muster 2.3p90. Milner does make more successful interceptions on average, however, this is much closer. Whilst Milner makes 1.2p90, Rabiot intercepts 0.9p90. Both really make only one per game. In both offence and defence, we can say that Milner comes out worse.
On the evidence we have seen before us, Milner does add things to the Liverpool team which his teammates can’t. Chiefly, Milner provides positional versatility and an enviable amount of experience. The question is not about whether Milner can still contribute, however. Rather, it is whether he is contributing in a way which his manager will continue to enjoy.
Season-upon-season, the Liverpool manager has added to his squad. Klopp and the Liverpool board are keen to recruit dedicated specialists from either the outside or the youth team. For instance, the full-back positions will be resolved by the start of next season.
With the return of key players and the possible purchase of left-back Alex Grimaldo from Benfica, Milner will be frozen out. The centre of midfield for Liverpool is also over-crowded. The rumours of Adrien Rabiot signing for a free transfer seem to suggest that Klopp is looking for a cheap, long-term replacement for his dependable midfielder. Milner may well remain a Liverpool player next season, although his transition to retirement is surely getting closer.
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