LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, November 22, 2020: Liverpool’s captain James Milner during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City 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. Liverpool won 3-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

James Milner’s leadership proves vital, now set for last hurrah

Liverpool’s Mr Reliable continued to prove his worth as a valuable asset for Jurgen Klopp over the course of 2020/21, even if his playing time started to diminish.

In the absence of Jordan Henderson and Virgil Van Dijk, Milner’s leadership was needed more than ever as Liverpool entered free-fall in early 2021.

Still going strong at the vintage age of 35, Milner racked up 36 appearances in all competitions for the Reds.

Surprisingly, or unsurprisingly given Liverpool’s injury predicament, he saw his game time increase from the previous campaign in which Liverpool secured their first league title in 30 years.

James Milner, 2020/21

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 24, 2021: Liverpool's captain James Milner during the FA Cup 4th Round match between Manchester United FC and Liverpool FC at Old Trafford. Manchester United won 3-2. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 18 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 17
Unused sub: 5
Goals: 0
Assists: 1

Overall Season Rating: 6.33

In a year in which Klopp’s men smashed their own, unwanted, records, the presence of Liverpool’s No.7, who’s accumulated invaluable experience over the duration of his 18-year career, was craved more than ever.

To many, maybe even Milner himself, there’s an element of surprise that the 35-year-old is still plying his trade at the summit of English football. However, for all of those involved internally at the club, his professionalism must be a dream to work with day-in-day-out.

Resiliently reliable

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA - Tuesday, August 25, 2020: Liverpool's captain James Milner during a preseason friendly match between FC Red Bull Salzburg and Liverpool FC at the Red Bull Arena. (Pic by Propaganda)

His season started off in typical twilight fashion, cameo appearances here and there, as Liverpool continued to call on Milner for his nous and game management that is always desperately required in the dying embers of each game, especially as Liverpool’s defensive commander, Virgil van Dijk, was snatched away in October’s Merseyside Derby.

In November, he was called upon for his first 90 minutes of the season as Liverpool hosted high-flying Leicester.

In conventional Milner fashion, he was required to play out of position in order to cover for the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold, at full-back. A remarkable performance from Milner saw him provide his only assist of the campaign as Liverpool humbled Brendan Rodgers’ men 3-0.

On paper, this season was his worst return for Liverpool in terms of output since he joined the club in 2015, with zero goals and only one assist. However, Milner’s versatility, commitment, and discipline were worth their weight in gold over a gruelling eight months.

Yet, whether it was playing left-back in Bergamo or Birmingham, controlling the midfield at Wembley, or darting down the right-hand side to overlap Mohamed Salah at Anfield, Milner has done it all of the course of the campaign and there hasn’t been an ounce of moaning.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, April 10, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold (L) celebrates with team-mate James Milner after scoring the winning second goal during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Having said that, Milner’s season would get an unforeseen kick-start in early 2021 as Klopp’s options began to cease week-on-week.

Brought into the side for a double-header in the capital when the Reds were triumphant against West Ham and Spurs in the space of three days, where they hoaxed fans into believing their January form was a slight blip, only for hindsight to tell us it was more than a post-Christmas smear.

Milner’s typical old school bullish approach helped guide Liverpool to maximum points in two games that could’ve been labelled, in hindsight, as season-defining due to how tight the race for European football turned out to be.

It was perhaps with this run of matches alone that Milner proved why is still on the books at Anfield nearly six years on, as he further illustrated his importance to Klopp – even in his twilight years.

Having not played a full match since November, he was smoothly dropped into the starting eleven at Spurs, where he played 237 minutes out of a possible 270 in the space of six days; something that may come as surprise to those that aren’t aware of Liverpool’s pre-season lactate tests…

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 7, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp bring on substitute James Milner for Curtis Jones during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC at Anfield. Manchester City won 4-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

However, Milner’s most prominent contribution would come after the March international break when Liverpool hit rock-bottom with a defeat to Fulham, the sixth in a row at Anfield, just weeks prior. Meaning the final weeks of the season became do-or-die for Klopp’s men.

Further resilient, professional and ‘Milner-esque’ performances came as he, again, found himself thrust into the deep end for ties against Arsenal, Aston Villa and Leeds.

His performance at the Emirates was everything the Reds needed at the time, with output in the squad at all season-low. Resilience, game management and discipline were needed if they were to get their Champions League ambitions back on track, and Milner provided all three in abundance as Liverpool remained undefeated.

Not to mention his performance against Real Madrid at Anfield, which is worth its own tribute. Lining up against some of the most talented and decorated midfielders of the last decade in Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Milner produced a typical workman-like performance, nearly capped off with a stunning curling effort.

Raising the question amongst many fans as to why he was deemed surplus to requirements in Madrid the previous week.

Leading by example

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - Monday, March 15, 2021: Liverpool's James Milner (L) and Sadio Mané after the FA Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers FC and Liverpool FC at Molineux Stadium. (Pic by Propaganda)

Arguably, his most important contribution of the season came in April, when Milner, in his typical stern manner, fronted up to the Sky Sports’ camera to voice his displeasure at the proposal of a new European Super League.

At the time, many younger players would have found it hard to voice their opinions and go against the plans of their employers.

Not Milner, he knows his time is nearly up at Liverpool and was under no restraints to voice his anger towards the idea; subsequently causing a ripple effect across the league as players then began to unite against the proposal.

“I don’t like it and hopefully it doesn’t happen,” he stated emphatically.

As one of the ‘four’ captains at Liverpool, Milner’s influence has always translated into the dressing room. For a man who has won the lot, he’s a vital component of Klopp’s squad. Someone who embodies everything Klopp represents.

For players like Curtis Jones, who are entering their defining years at the club as they look to break into Klopp’s first XI on a more consistent basis, Milner is the perfect mentor for all of the aforementioned reasons; professionalism, commitment and experience.

And it makes it all the easier to understand why the club’s hierarchy offered him a three-year deal in December 2019, despite being 33-years-old at the time.

Role for next season

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, May 23, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp (L) and James Milner after the final FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Crystal Palace FC at Anfield. Liverpool won 2-0 and finished 3rd in the table. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

In saying that, next season looks destined to be the last for Milner in a Liverpool shirt as his contract expires in June 2022. For a then 36-year-old it looks like it will be the right time to depart Anfield.

Therefore, this upcoming season should see Milner begin to fade into the background, especially as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita seem to be on their last chances to impress.

Whilst Milner’s on-pitch influence looks certain to dwindle out over the next twelve months, Liverpool could do far worse things than offer him a coaching role at the end of his contract, pending that is something that aligns with his post-playing career ambitions.

For someone who’s backed it up consistently in years previous, it would be foolish of me to write off the unrivalled machine that is James Milner’s body.

But as he approaches his 19th season in the professional game, it looks like he will undertake a bit-part role as he looks to bow out as one of, if not, the best free signing in Liverpool’s history.

Best moment: Post-Leeds European Super League interview.

Worst moment: Injury at Leicester.

Role next season: Emergency option for Klopp and continuing to be a massive figure in the dressing room.