James Milner's dominant performance in the heart of Liverpool's midfield gives Jurgen Klopp plenty to ponder
A transfer story lost to the summer: the one about James Milner and the discussions Liverpool had with Newcastle United over a move. Milner was not up for sale but when one of your highest paid players has two seasons left on a contract and is not in the side every week at 31 years of age, possibilities are inevitably explored.
That Milner remained said more about financial inflexibilities at Newcastle because Liverpool were not going to let him go for nothing even though they signed him for nothing. He has started just two games since, both in the Premier League – the last before tonight a month ago. In the two Champions League group stage matches, he had not made it off the bench.
His selection against Maribor, then, was a surprise, not only because it came at the expense of Liverpool’s captain, Jordan Henderson, but also because of the responsibilities attached. For the first time since Jürgen Klopp’s earliest weeks as manager, he was asked to play in the position he was promised as his own upon signing for Klopp’s predecessor, Brendan Rodgers.
The switch meant Emre Can took Henderson’s place at the base of Liverpool’s midfield. The critics and the pessimists will look at this result and the words ‘only’ and ‘Maribor’ will follow but Milner’s dominant - if not man of the match - performance surely gives Klopp something to consider, particularly after the structure of his team was critically assessed so publicly by José Mourinho following Saturday’s goalless draw between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield, with the Portuguese questioning why Klopp had not made changes to his midfield as the game grew old.
Liverpool led by four goals at half time here and it could have been more. Three of Maribor’s four Slovenian defenders were thirty-something and so, there needs to be context because Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho are likely to shape Brazil’s attack at the next World Cup, while Mohamed Salah’s pace makes you wonder whether the injured Sadio Mané is now the second fastest player at the club – a frightening thought for better opponents than Maribor.
The gulf in quality was enormous and it is also difficult to assess whether Milner being as high up the pitch as he was so often, was a consequence of the abilities and work rate of those in front of him leading to Slovenian defenders dropping deeper and deeper; or whether to some extent, it was actually the support offered from deep by Milner particularly that helped Liverpool overwhelm Maribor completely.
Certainly, Milner made the right decisions, his movement close to Salah affording the Egyptian with the necessary space to run into, causing the most damage. It was a display, indeed, that makes you think about Can, whose Liverpool future is in the balance because it does not appear he will sign a new contract any time soon and the present one ends next July.
Can is a first-choice pick for Klopp and someone, indeed, Klopp really would like to keep. Can, though, is someone who needs to have more than a middling sort of campaign as he has done in the last two. He is also someone who plays instead of Milner but someone who frustrates. While Milner’s Champions League story this season involves an assist in a 7-0 victory over Maribor, Can has made mistakes which has led to goals scored by Sevilla and Spartak Moscow – the type of mistakes you’d never associate Milner with. It means he is surely in Klopp's plans.