Nerves of steel remain invaluable asset for James Milner as on-field influence wanes

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It was another season as a key squad player for James Milner; one where his leadership and nerves of steel came to the fore to clinch his career second Premier League title.

Milner has now won every there is to win in English club football at the highest level after another season where his versatility and experience proved vital.

With a new left-back not acquired in the summer, the 34-year-old continued to act as a deputy to Andy Robertson in addition to his favoured central midfield role, one he even coupled with outings at right-back.

While the question continued to be asked if Milner was to eventually fade out of Jurgen Klopp’s plans, the Yorkshireman would remain ever-present in the matchday squad, featuring 37 times from a possible 57.

Time in the starting XI would drop in comparison to last season, however, while an injury after the restart would deny him the chance to add significant minutes to his tally, but his influence in the early stages was key in sustaining the Reds’ relentless run of results.

James Milner, 2019/20

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool’s James Milner celebrates with the Premier League trophy as the Reds are crowned Champions after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 18 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 19
Unused sub: 5
Goals: 4
Assists: 4

Overall Season Rating: 7.5

 

Leadership and nerves of steel

Liverpool's James Milner (left) celebrates scoring a penalty vs. Leicester (Peter Byrne/PA Wire)

“His kind of a little bit dirty dressing-room talks, I cannot do, these things you say in the dressing room that I am not allowed to say in public. That’s the last little kick and that’s nice,” Klopp noted on Milner during pre-season.

The vice-captain’s role had a change of pace this season, with only 18 starts across all competitions as opposed to 31 in 2018/19, with just nine coming in the Premier League this time around.

But while his influence out on the field waned somewhat, he remained a key pillar in driving the standards off the pitch.

“They set a standard that’s unbelievable, they shout at you like I can’t believe and in the next moment, they have their arm around you,” the boss said of his senior England contingent at the end of the season.

Milner has and always will be coupled with the word selfless, such is his willingness to take on any role required of him and with competition for places heating up, he took his chances in other competitions, ones which made him the experienced head in a relatively youthful lineup.

He led the way in the League Cup clashes against MK Dons and Arsenal, donning the captain’s armband and scoring in each, with an assist to boot, to guide youthful lineups over the line from left-back.

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - Wednesday, September 25, 2019: Liverpool's James Milner celebrates scoring the first goal with team-mates during the Football League Cup 3rd Round match between MK Dons FC and Liverpool FC at Stadium MK. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A similar role was to befall him against Everton in the FA Cup third round at the turn of the new year, only for injury to strike and ultimately derail the rest of his campaign.

But despite it taking eight games for Milner to complete a full 90 minutes in the Premier League, having made only one start previous to that, it was these two appearances from the off which helped guide Liverpool to a dominant start.

An assist on the second matchday to set up the opener in the 2-1 win at Southampton was the first and was followed up with arguably his most decisive moments in a red shirt in 2019/20.

Leicester were the visitors in the eighth game of the campaign, one where Milner harnessed his years of experience to act calm and composed under pressure.

Taking a midfield role in Jordan Henderson’s absence, few may have harboured fears of Milner tiring against a vibrant Leicester outfit, but he would dispel any such notion and more than hold his own.

First, with a curling left-footed through ball tight on the touch-line straight to the feet on an onrushing Sadio Mane to open the scoring before being tasked with a last-gasp penalty in stoppage time, which he, of course, safely tucked away.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - Thursday, December 26, 2019: Liverpool's James Milner (C) celebrates scoring the second goal, from a penalty kick, with team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum (L), captain Jordan Henderson (R) and Roberto Firmino (top) during the FA Premier League match between Leicester City FC and Liverpool FC at the King Power Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It ensured Liverpool remained clear at the top of the table with eight successive wins, with the gap from Man City ballooning out to eight points.

He would score only one more goal in the top-flight, in the same manner against the same team.

From an early stage, however, it became apparent that Milner was Klopp’s go-to-man late in games, the one to add a level head and help control the tempo to see out results.

But it was his “really long, long, long, long big toe” which would hit the headlines in March after he showed the required level of poise to track back and lift Bournemouth’s second-half effort out of play to ensure the Reds kept hold of their 2-1 lead.

Such moments are ones which can pass you by within an exhilarating push to the title, but they were key nevertheless, and injury late on would rob him of having more to say.

 

Navigating new territory

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 5, 2020: Liverpool's James Milner sits injured during the FA Cup 3rd Round match between Liverpool FC and Everton FC, the 235th Merseyside Derby, at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The 34-year-old’s reputation precedes himself in the fitness department, but this season Milner suffered a number of setbacks pertaining two different hamstring injuries.

Ahead of the season, Klopp acknowledged that while the No. 7 is as energetic as an emerging player, his body is still susceptible to breaking down and management was key.

“Millie looks again in the pre-season like [he’s in] in his early 20s; but he isn’t, he knows that and we try to respect that,” the manager explained.

“But he is not only in the game not really stoppable, in training it’s the same.”

And having played 378 minutes across seven games in the space of 22 days in December, which included Club World Cup action, Milner broke down just 10 minutes into the FA Cup clash against Everton with a hamstring injury – one which would see him miss seven games.

It was his first forced absence through injury since October 2018, and the second since early 2016/17.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 2, 2020: Liverpool's head of fitness and conditioning Andreas Kornmayer hands an energy gel to James Milner during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Sheffield United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

But his six-minute cameo on return at Norwich preceded another hamstring setback which saw him miss a further two league games and ensured he was restricted to just 48 minutes of action in the two-legged last-16 tie against Atletico Madrid.

The forced three-month break game Milner time to rest and recover, but despite all the preparation, he would feature for just 43 minutes in the opener at Everton, with the hamstring striking once more.

An injury which would see him play just a further 34 minutes across seven games before returning to the starting XI on the final day at Newcastle.

It was new terrain for Milner to navigate after a number of seasons of consistent availability and with a short turnaround for the new season he will no doubt be managed further, although that may be hard to do such is his tireless work ethic.

 

What’s next for the No.7?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, March 7, 2020: Liverpool's James Milner during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and AFC Bournemouth at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Many had speculated that a Premier League return for Leeds United could see Milner look for a switch back to his boyhood club, but a contract extension signed in December means he is not set to go anywhere with his deal running until 2022.

With the summer expected to be quiet once more on the transfer front, Milner will face few threats in the form of new faces.

However, the rise of Neco Williams who has been tipped for a greater role in the side next season as an auxiliary full-back could result in an even greater reduction of playing time.

We are likely to continue to see his influence on the pitch continue to wane, but he will remain an invaluable asset to the side as they bid to retain their title next season and add more trophies to the cabinet.

A veteran with still a lot to offer and one who will continue to set and drive the standards which have catapulted Liverpool to the top of the club standings.


Best Moment: The penalty at the death vs. Leicester.

Worst Moment: Untimely hamstring injury at the start of January.

Role next season: Will remain a key squad player, potentially with less time at full-back.

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