Friday 22 March 2019

Milner passes every endurance test to be key cog for Klopp

Liverpool marathon man model of consistency in club's drive for glory in Premier League and Europe

Liverpool midfielder James Milner, right, gives instructions to his teammate Andy Robertson during their Champions League clash with Bayern Munich. AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson
Liverpool midfielder James Milner, right, gives instructions to his teammate Andy Robertson during their Champions League clash with Bayern Munich. AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson

Simon Hughes

The blood above James Milner's left eye had clotted and he looked like a welterweight who had gone the distance in a fight.

His face was so flushed, he may have also competed in a marathon - in fact, his performance data revealed that he'd done more than half of one, running further than any of his teammates and much further than any of those opponents trying to disrupt his rhythm.

It was last August and Liverpool had finished taking apart West Ham when he soldiered through Anfield's mixed zone.

The Premier League campaign was one game in but Milner had the scars and bearing of someone who'd already been going at it for months.

Commitments

On the first day of pre-season training six weeks earlier, he had been the last man standing in an endurance test. Though the whole of the Liverpool squad was not present that morning because of commitments at the World Cup, Jurgen Klopp had predicted Milner would come first.

"Ah, the hope of English football," he joked in front of cameras, considering Milner (above) was 32 at the time and the oldest player involved.

Klopp replaced him again last night - as he now tends to do - but only when Liverpool's passage to the quarter-final was certain.

Maybe he stayed on longer because of Jordan Henderson's enforced exit. It seemed significant, though, that even if Klopp hugs all of his players, the warmest embrace was for his number 7, the one whose diligence is of Stakhanovite proportions.

Once again in Munich, his distance was further than anyone else's and this is what Klopp looks for first in a midfielder.

It explains why he did not go for another number 10 when a deal for Lyon's Nabil Fekir fell through.

There are few who can meet his unique demands in that position. While innovation is important, endurance is, indeed, a necessity.

Milner's race, though, has not come at the expense of his capacity to create. This is where you really begin to appreciate how fit Milner actually is because there is a tendency in football to believe legs are not connected to brains.

While Milner's fitness has been maintained, there have been slight improvements in other significant parts of his game.

Domestically, he has won more tackles and made more interceptions in 2018/'19 than he did in the whole of the last. He also has a greater number of assists and would have had more with better finishing.

It had been his corner that allowed Virgil van Dijk to score at the Allianz Arena and it had been his corner which ended up with Sadio Mane equalising in the final against Real Madrid last May.

Though nine of his assists came during last season's run towards Kiev, his ten in total since the summer of 2017 means he has more than any other player involved in the Champions League during the period.

This means he has contributed enormously to Liverpool's re-emergence as a European force.

Lumping

Not so long ago, he had described himself as the "geezer from Yorkshire in his mining boots, lumping across the field."

His modesty has helped his career because he appreciates his own boundaries without being inhibited by them and that is a strength.

Managers have always picked him but not always in the position where he has felt most comfortable - which is where he is now under Klopp, in the centre of Liverpool's midfield.

Because Liverpool's attack is so narrow and this is intended at overloading opposition defences, there is more of a demand on the three behind to fill the gaps and this is where Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum are excellent.

Just as Wijnaldum's industry and positional sense had a major bearing on Trent Alexander-Arnold's mature performance in Munich, Milner's relationship with Andy Robertson has helped the Scot's game - even if Bayern's goal did come from that side of the pitch.

Phil Neville said last Sunday night that Robertson is now the best left-back in Europe and at the very highest level it is hard to think of anyone who has been better or as consistent as him over the last 12 months.

This again reflects Milner's influence. Now that Jermain Defoe has left for Rangers, he is most experienced player active in the Premier League.

Klopp was only half messing when he said not so long ago that he could play until he is 40.

If he does that, then maybe he will pass Gareth Barry's appearance record.

There remains the issue of his Liverpool contract which has 15 months left.

Those around him say he'd like to finish his career where he started at Leeds. So long as he continues to run, though, it is imaginable that Klopp will want him. (© Independent News Service)

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