Tuesday 11 December 2018

'Teacher's pet' Milner sets the tone that Klopp demands others to follow

 

Liverpool's James Milner celebrates scoring
Liverpool's James Milner celebrates scoring
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Getty Images
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

With a few minutes remaining before half-time, Southampton attacked down the left wing and Jordan Henderson looked around wondering why he seemed to be the one Liverpool midfielder in a position to stop them pulling a goal back.

Henderson had been dragged away from his central position while, 15 yards in front of him and in no position to defend, Xherdan Shaqiri (figure 1) was still making his way back. Southampton crossed and Pierre Hojbjerg couldn't make a proper connection from the centre of the 18-yard box. From there, Liverpool broke away and Mo Salah almost scored with an audacious backheel which drew gasps of delight from the Anfield crowd.

milner1.JPG

On the sideline, however, Jurgen Klopp still looked furious at the breakdown in structure at the other end which almost allowed the opposition back into a game in which they previously hadn't threatened. At half-time, despite arguably being the biggest reason for Liverpool being 3-0 up and on their way to the sixth victory out of six, Shaqiri was substituted and James Milner brought on.

"In the second half we had to control the game a bit and brought Milly in," was Klopp's unapologetic assessment. "That worked well even if it wasn't the most exciting football game any more."

1: Southampton attack down their left wing with Xherdan Shaqiri (circled) out of his right midfield position leaving Liverpool exposed
2: James Milner (circled) blocks the passing lane through to Harry Winks, causing Mousa Dembele to hesitate and be dispossessed
1: Southampton attack down their left wing with Xherdan Shaqiri (circled) out of his right midfield position leaving Liverpool exposed 2: James Milner (circled) blocks the passing lane through to Harry Winks, causing Mousa Dembele to hesitate and be dispossessed

If it was a classroom, Milner would be the teacher's pet simply because whatever Klopp needs to be done, he has complete faith in Milner to do it. If Klopp needs to show a new signing what he is looking for from a defensive point of view, he can grab Shaqiri and tell him to watch Milner's positioning when the opposition have the ball.

If a young player was in danger of getting too big for his boots, Klopp can point to Milner's attitude which hasn't changed much since he made his debut as a 16-year-old in November 2002 on a day when substitute goalkeeper, Nigel Martyn, was 20 years older than him.

If a player isn't being as professional as they could be in terms of looking after their body, Klopp can point to the teetotaller Milner being able to run 13.5 kilometres in a Champions League quarter-final, as he did against Manchester City, and justifiably ask that if Milner can do it at 32, why can't they?

Every successful club has players who set a standard by their work ethic and attitude even if they aren't the superstars and while Liverpool's front three justifiably have their name in lights, the three behind them regularly set a tone which allows Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane to flourish.

At Manchester United, Jose Mourinho seems desperately short of such characters with constant drama surrounding so many of his players as one superstar gets in the way of another creating friction and a lack of cohesion.

It's to Klopp's credit that he has looked at a player's ability rather than their price tag and done what's best for the team. Fabinho cost over £40m but shows no signs of displacing the man who took a £15,000-a-week pay cut when he arrived as a free transfer three years ago.

In fairness to any new arrivals, being a midfielder in Klopp's 4-3-3 system requires a discipline and game intelligence which, regardless of the price-tag, aren't always that easy to find.

Against Tottenham at Wembley, Milner started the game with a cross from the sideline which almost yielded a goal but, out of possession, Milner was 15 yards further infield, blocking the lanes which Tottenham wanted to pass through (figure 2). That meant Tottenham's defenders or deep midfielders had to take an extra touch which left them vulnerable to being pounced upon by Liverpool's strikers.

Milner2.JPG

Klopp's teams are famous for their pressing which sounds straightforward but only works if everybody has the positional awareness to implement the plan and not be caught out in attack.

No matter which side he is playing, Milner constantly covers whenever either Trent Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson go forward which will be particularly important tonight, given the warning shot which Eden Hazard fired at Anfield in the League Cup on Wednesday.

It's difficult to stop Hazard in full flow. However, given how almost everything at Chelsea runs through Jorginho, Milner and the midfield will attempt to break the supply line - as they did against Tottenham two weeks ago and Manchester City in the Champions League last year - and hope to cause similar chaos which they ruthlessly exploited on both occasions.

From Alisson Becker, through Virgil van Dijk, Keita and on to Salah, it's a Liverpool team which cost hundreds of millions. It's Milner, however, the man who cost nothing, who sets the tone.

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