When James Milner made the move to Liverpool in 2015, it was widely believed to be under the proviso that he would take up a role he had long set his sights on: returning to the centre of midfield on a regular basis. With Steven Gerrard departing for LA Galaxy, Brendan Rodgers had acquired a player of similar experience, professionalism and longevity, with Milner having proved his quality over 13 years in the English top flight with Leeds United, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Manchester City. After a frustrating season that saw the Reds finish sixth, Milner arrived as an ideal solution for Rodgers, fighting to preserve his position in the Anfield dugout. Shortly after his move to Merseyside in a high-profile free transfer, Milner confirmed his decision to leave a title-chasing City side was fuelled by a desire to build on one promising campaign with Villa in 2009/10.
“I felt valued by the manager [at City] and the club and they saw me as a big part of the team on and off the field. But I was always going to be filling in and being that utility guy and doing a job for the team, and maybe this was the first time I’ve made a decision to be more selfish and thought what was best for me,” he explained. “I was thinking what could have happened had I kicked on from that one season at Aston Villa where I played centrally and what could have happened if I’d carried on like that. Who knows?” At 29, the dutiful Milner had made a move to satisfy his best interests—and, for Rodgers, this provided the perfect opportunity to add a high-quality talent to his ranks. “We had to work very hard to get him in but I think we’ll see over the course of the season how important he is for us,” the Ulsterman said back in 2015. “He’s a wonderful personality and a top-class footballer. When you see him play in his favourite position, you see all these qualities come out.”
But it certainly hasn’t panned out that way for the boy from West Yorkshire, as just three months after Milner’s switch to Merseyside, Liverpool had parted ways with Rodgers, appointing Jurgen Klopp in his place. Klopp took an immediate liking to Milner, of course, describing the Englishman as “the complete football player,” and “the perfect professional,” and in his first season with the Reds, he fielded his No. 7 in midfield in 33 of his 36 outings following Rodgers’ dismissal, with all but two of those coming as part of the starting lineup. However, with Adam Lallana moving into a new role in the middle of the park last summer, and Klopp switching to a new 4-3-3 formation, Milner was required to shift roles once again: surprisingly, he became the German’s first-choice left-back.
“I felt valued by the manager [at City] and the club and they saw me as a big part of the team on and off the field. But I was always going to be filling in and being that utility guy and doing a job for the team, and maybe this was the first time I’ve made a decision to be more selfish and thought what was best for me,” James Milner
Taking over from the out-of-favour Alberto Moreno, Milner provided a serviceable option as part of Klopp’s back four, with 37 of his 40 appearances coming at left-back and, owing to his prowess from the penalty spot, the Wortley native even equalled his career-best tally for goals in a Premier League campaign, with seven—ironically, drawing level with his output from midfield in his final season with Villa.
In 2017/18, Milner looks set to return to the role that saw Manuel Pellegrini, his last manager at City, describe him as “polyfunctional.” The Argentine claimed himself to be “Milner’s No. 1 fan,” continuing to hail the veteran as “a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big.” With Moreno contending with new signing Andrew Robertson for the role of starting left-back, and the likes of Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Emre Can and youngsters Marko Grujic, Ovie Ejaria and Ben Woodburn all tussling for a place in Klopp’s midfield, Milner has resumed his duty as “utility guy.” Against Watford in the Reds’ season-opening 3-3 draw, he replaced Mohamed Salah with four minutes left to play, as Klopp looked to shore up his midfield; at Hoffenheim, in the 2-1 Champions League play-off first-leg win, he took over from the flagging Henderson, once again as a midfielder, and prompted Liverpool’s second goal when his cross soared beyond Oliver Baumann via Havard Nordtveit’s leg.
In the 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace, he started in place of the rested Can as the most advanced of Klopp’s midfield three, providing an energy and vibrancy that he alluded to when explaining his favoured role back in 2015: “In the middle you get more involved in the game and can change the game.” It is this posit, contrasting with his perpetual peripherality, that has trailed Milner throughout his career. Though he is far from a shrinking violet, Milner’s consummate professionalism ensures that he adopts the utility role without agitation; and while he is capable of changing the landscape of a game, his versatility, intelligence and flexibility have led managers to depend on him as a filling agent. For Liverpool, he serves as vice-captain to the injured Henderson—symbolically at least, with the Reds’ No. 14 struggling with persistent injury issues and Milner taking up an influential role as Klopp’s leader in the dressing room. For England, he found himself at odds with the rise of the likes of Gerrard, Frank Lampard and even, at one stage, Scott Parker.
A wry, deceptively comic character, Milner has always been a hugely important part of the squad, at Leeds, Newcastle, Villa, City and now Liverpool, but he has consistently sacrificed his own gain for a desire to help his side in any way possible.
Under Klopp this season, it seems that Milner will once again operate as Liverpool’s Jack of all trades, master of many. With the Reds fighting on four fronts in 2017/18, he can expect to slot in at left-back, on the flanks and as any of the No. 6, No. 8 or No. 10 in Klopp’s three-man midfield. Given the demands on Klopp’s squad this season, he could expect to play close to 50 games in all competitions. Unfortunately, it may not be in the role he desires—but as Milner has proved throughout his career, he is certainly invaluable as the utility man.