Liverpool’s match against Real Madrid was the perfect demonstration of Jurgen Klopp’s belief that a leader is crucial in central midfield in the biggest games.
James Milner’s inclusion in the starting XI came as a shock to many, but fans should not have been surprised. The manager is a big believer in the importance of leadership and inspiration when the odds are against his side.
Essentially, in the biggest games, James Milner will play if Jordan Henderson is unavailable.
It took less than a minute for the 35-year-old to show exactly why he was in the team. After just 45 seconds, Milner was putting in a crunching tackle on Real Madrid’s dangerman Karim Benzema in the middle of the park.
It was all about putting a marker down. It encouraged his Liverpool teammates to continue the fast pace and aggression that he was showing.
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Granted, the result did not go Liverpool’s way. But that was because of missed chances and a lack of composure, not because of a lack of fight or intensity.
What Milner’s presence ensured was that this team was not going down without a fight.
The problem going forward for Liverpool is that the two key leaders in the squad are ageing.
Vice-captain Milner is 35 and has a maximum of one season left playing for the Reds.
Meanwhile, captain Henderson is 31 this summer, He is picking up injuries much more frequently in recent times, so may not last much longer than two or three years himself.
It will be a worry for Klopp.
How can Liverpool find a new leader?
Recruiting high-quality footballers is relatively easy compared to finding high-quality footballers who also can be an inspiration to those around him.
Many players have excellent technique and ability on the ball. Many players can shout and organize and take a game by the scruff of the neck. Not many can do both.
A captain needs to not only know his own role, but also the role of all of his teammates. He needs to be like a coach on the pitch.
Another important factor is that the best leaders in England tend to be either British or Irish. Be it Henderson, Milner, Gerrard or Keane, the best teams have tended to have a relatively local player leading his side.
The theory of “understanding the English game” can be seen as an outdated opinion, but there is a certain level of sense to it.
There simply are not many outstanding candidates out there for the role of Henderson’s Liverpool replacement.
Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund is the best English No 8 prospect around, but he will take quite a few seasons to develop the leadership trait.
One possibility is that Trent Alexander-Arnold develops into a better talker on the pitch and fills Henderson’s boots as club captain.
He is not yet the man to shout at his teammates and demand that their standards are as high as possible. He is also not one to put in a hard tackle to show the opposition that Liverpool mean business.
But he is still young, at just 22. The likes of Henderson needed a few years of experience before developing into the captain he is today. The same will probably happen with Alexander-Arnold.
The Scouser moving into midfield has been spoken about by many, and it is possibly what Liverpool need in the post-Henderson and Milner years.
It could be a much easier solution than finding the perfect leader in the transfer market.
A local lad, captaining and inspiring his team to be the best in the world. It’s what dreams are made of.