Milner in midfield - masterstroke or massive gamble?
After Liverpool won their final game of pre-season against Athletic Bilbao 3-1, Jürgen Klopp hinted that Alberto Moreno has managed to save his Liverpool future and that as a result, James Milner will be used in his more natural position in midfield this season, allowing Moreno and Robertson to fight over the left back spot. Naturally, the response to this was calm and considered, with a lot of people acknowledging that perhaps Moreno hasn’t had the chance to settle in a Liverpool shirt and has had a really good pre-season. And the prospect of James Milner filling in where he naturally plays, rather than being wasted at left back, is one that most Liverpool fans are more than happy with. Right? Oh.
Facetiousness aside, if Liverpool aren’t in the market for another central midfielder after failing to secure the signing of Naby Keita (and now we really are in the realm of assumption – both that the Keita deal is dead and that there is no replacement) then they could do a lot worse than James Milner.
It’s worth remembering that when James Milner came to Liverpool, he came as a player with two Premier League medals to his name, who had played a vital utility role for Man City as both a winger and a central midfielder, two areas that Liverpool fans have been clamouring for depth in. And Milner had a pretty good first season at the club, notching seven goals and fourteen assists across 40 games in the Premier League and Europa League.
So Milner comes into this season with pedigree playing in the midfield, where he claims is his best position, and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he will do a job there for Liverpool. After a mixed bag of a season in 2016/17, the consensus was that Milner simply wasn’t a left back and that it was harsh on him to be expected to play there. So now that Milner has been freed of his shackles? Well only time will tell.
The other thing to bear in mind is that Milner is not playing as a first or even second choice player. With Coutinho, Wijnaldum, Henderson, Can and when he’s fit Adam Lallana, all ahead of Milner, it’s likely that he’ll only be used as a central midfielder when the situation demands it, as it might in a long season when there will be plenty of minutes available.
Simply put, Liverpool’s squad isn’t quite deep enough for what is to come, so by keeping Moreno as an option at left-back and using Milner in midfield, Klopp is potentially improving our left back situation further, and giving us another option both out wide and in central midfield.
So the negative side of things then, because clearly there is a real point to be made here. Liverpool fans went into this window expecting our central midfield options to be bolstered by a world class addition, such as Naby Keita or Renato Sanches or Leon Goretzka. To go from that level of player to James Milner is quite a big step down, especially as the questions over the fitness of Adam Lallana and Jordan Henderson rumble on, and Philippe Coutinho’s future at the club will not be certain until 1st September.
The other question remains over whether or not Milner has the energy and pace to compete as a midfielder in a Jürgen Klopp side. Moving away from the question of Moreno, is Milner good enough to fill in as a central midfield option should Coutinho leave or someone such as Emre Can pick up a serious injury?
That is a question that Liverpool fans will be hoping that they don’t have to answer. Certainly, Klopp has made an error by describing Milner as a new signing in central midfield, as that implies direct comparisons with the likes of Keita or Goretzka, names that Liverpool fans were hoping to see at Anfield this summer. But equally, Milner is a sturdy and experienced understudy, whose positional shift gives Liverpool added depth, whether people want better quality or not.
In fact central midfield is arguably the deepest level of Liverpool’s squad, especially compared to the other top teams in the league. With Milner at best sixth choice for a midfield spot, and arguably seventh behind Marko Grujic, it would take multiple serious injuries for him to play there regularly. Compare that to Chelsea, who are one more injury away from not having a central midfielder to call on at all, or Spurs who are being forced to start Harry Winks there, and having James Milner as that option doesn’t look quite so bad. Even Manchester City and Arsenal, who have a lot of midfield depth have sixth choices of Fabian Delph and Mohamed Elneny respectively, which are hardly inspired options.
Of course, the frustration will be there that the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can have not been upgraded, and that if Coutinho is forced to play vast minutes out wide, then Liverpool will need big seasons from Marko Grujic and James Milner, but then Grujic is a player that most Liverpool fans want to see more of anyway.
Essentially, moving Milner back into the middle of midfield, or possibly even as a wide option in big games where Liverpool need to be more defensive, is a move that whilst on paper uninspiring, could end up being very canny, and could be very, very important to Liverpool’s success in 2017/18.
However, on the other hand, Milner will have to deal with being the new poster boy for lack of signings, and there’s already a lot of bad blood for that amongst Liverpool fans. Every mistake that he makes, if he has a poor performance, then he will be used as a bit stick to beat Klopp and the owners with. To that extent, Klopp has managed to put a lot of pressure on the success of Milner in the next 12 months, or he will have no excuses and nowhere to hide. And for Klopp to place that much faith in James Milner is a huge, huge gamble.
That said, Milner might not be a new signing, but he’s another experienced, useful body in the middle of the park. And besides, he can’t possibly be worse than Lucas.