Jack Hallows analyses Jurgen Klopp’s experiment at left back that is James Milner.
“At left back, number 7, James Milner!” You what? When that was announced at Turf Moor in game week two everyone raised an eyebrow. He’d been used at fullback before last season against Manchester United in Moreno’s absence but that was down to necessity, not design, so this decision by Jurgen Klopp caused a definite stir. However, almost halfway into the season and ‘Milly’ has been one of the best full-backs in the Premier League and one of the Red’s most consistent performers. So how has Klopp’s experiment been so successful so far?
An experienced head
Milner is 30 years old with an incredible 14 years of Premier League experience behind him and in a team whose average age is in the low to mid 20s, his experience has been vital. Playing the ex-Manchester City man at left back allows Klopp to get his first choice midfield trio on the field while not having to shun Milner’s footballing experience and know how. His level head and wealth of matches is something that not only brings a winning mentality to the side but also allows Klopp a calm and collected figure at left back as opposed to the often rash and indecisive Alberto Moreno.
This allows the likes of Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren the freedom to play how they want to play, safe in the knowledge that they have a solid presence either side in both Nathaniel Clyne and James Milner. The Reds have still leaked goals at times this season but Milner’s presence has certainly brought an air of calm to the Reds backline and has gone part of the way to helping Klopp iron out the Reds tendency for poor individual errors.
His level-headedness has also been evident at the other end of the field. The Englishman has banged in five penalties from five times of asking in the Premier League this season while laying on a further two assists for his teammates.
Versatility and intelligence
What Milner lacks in pace, he makes up for in intelligence, positional awareness and an incredible adaptability that has seen him labelled as a ‘utility man.’ The 30-year-old has learned his new trade quickly and seems to only get better week in, week out with the midfielder-come-defender noticeably more impressive in the tackle and upping his rate of interceptions.
His experience as a wide midfielder over the years has helped his success in this position with his ability to beat a man, cross the ball into dangerous areas and pick intelligent passes evident in every match so far this season – the way he nonchalantly played a one-two with Firmino before sliding past Glen Johnson to tee himself up for a shot on goal against Stoke was made to look so effortless.
It’s this in-game intelligence and ability to adapt through instinct that has seen Klopp desperate to get Milner on the field at every opportunity. The left back is able to adapt his game on the fly to suit whatever opponent he comes up against and coming head to head with quick wingers and strong forwards throughout the season, he’s never looked particularly troubled throughout.
Importance of the Liverpool fullback
Jurgen Klopp’s system requires full backs who are not just comfortable defending but are equally competent going forward, using the ball and pressing high. This is above all why James Milner has been so successful as a full-back for the Reds. His ability to create chances for Liverpool this season and his aptitude with his weaker left foot while still being able to cut inside onto his right foot gives the Reds new dimensions in attack and allows them to attack both in-field and down the wings when he receives the ball.
In Klopp’s system the full backs tuck in so far at times that they’re almost extra central midfielders which, when Henderson drops in between the centre backs makes the formation look as if it’s a 3-4-3. It’s this attacking impetus that allows the Reds to overload opposition boxes and get their wingers – Coutinho, Firmino, Mane, Sturridge depending on the line up – into the box rather than always driving to the byline. This is when the full backs will join the attack, looking to pick out one of the attacking players.
Milner has been admittedly a revelation at left back this season and has been one of the best full-backs in the entire league. However, while this experiment has paid off so far and could still do so in the short term future, left back is a position that Klopp will likely prioritise for the long term future. Milner is a midfielder above all and while his utility status makes him indispensable across the entire starting XI – besides goalkeeper of course – it’s doubtful he’ll want to continue at left back for the rest of his career. However, for the coming weeks, let’s just revel in the fact we have a more than capable presence bounding up and down the left flank tirelessly, banging in penalties and bringing experience and calm to our back four.