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There was considerable excitement and anticipation surrounding Liverpool’s signings of Naby Keïta and Fabinho. Midfield proved a major area of weakness in the Champions League final defeat to Real Madrid and the duo, theoretically, provided the missing link to elevate the Reds from being a good cup outfit to a title-contending one.
Keïta’s impact has been immediate and what the Guinean will bring to the side is obvious. Fabinho is still behind the curtain and will have to be more of a slow-burning success, akin to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andrew Robertson. But a surprising and previously-unconsidered upside of their arrival has been the effect it’s had on the men they were supposed to be replacing.
Gini Wijnaldum has been outstanding in a holding midfield role. The Dutchman’s energy was always a key asset of his play but the 27-year-old has brought a greater sense of control and composure in possession.
In a tactical sense, that could be a direct result of the all-encompassing presence of Keïta, or could be something more abstract.
Wijnaldum was mentioned consistently throughout the summer in transfer tittle-tattle as a possible departure but has instead remained dedicated to bettering himself in a Liverpool shirt.
The idea of self-improvement is no more apparent than in the case of James Milner. An auxiliary left-back before the emergence of Robertson, he is merely revealing his latest reinvention as a footballer.
Not just a jack-of-all-trades
A forward/attacking midfielder as a record-breaking teenager at Leeds, his switch to Newcastle prompted a definitive conversion into a winger on either side of the field. His time with Aston Villa brought out his playmaking ability and then it was at Manchester City where his defensive abilities first came to the fore in midfield.
Critics could level the accusation of being a sort of jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type but that’s ignoring the dedication and diligence to get to the status of where you can play a variety of positions throughout your time in the Premier League for five of the country’s biggest clubs.
Milner’s greatest strength is his commitment to his craft. To a man, his former managers have spoken glowingly of his hard work on the training ground, the unseen yards that help him stay in contention and challenging for inclusion even when more naturally-talented lie ahead of him.
At 32, he doesn’t really have a right to be in this Liverpool team. He isn’t particularly skilful or athletic (although his pace is underrated) and should be in decline physically. Jürgen Klopp counter-press is an intense, demanding style of play. It is, or at least should be, to use a well-worn cliché, a young man’s game.
Simplicity is the key
What Milner does extremely well, and what Keïta’s arrival has helped enable to an extent, is the simple things being done very well. He moves the ball exceptionally quickly, transferring possession from one flank to the other with efficiency and has a powerful engine to get up and down the field.
The season is just two games old, and this figure should decrease, but Milner is second among Premier League midfielders for accurate passes per game (80.25), pinging the ball around the field at 92.7 percent accuracy.
Before the accusations arrive of them all being safe, sideways passes, 26.36 have been forward – again, second highest in the division and he’s tempered that with some decent defensive numbers with four assists and three tackles.
As a result of his vast experience and intelligence, as any conversation with Milner reveals a mind beyond just understanding the merits of a midfield diamond, another huge strength is his positioning and reading of the game.
His stamina can often take him all over the field; he is rarely consigned to just the central area. But he’s always quick to get back in position, covering the danger and pressing the opposition.
A covering job
For a team like Liverpool who, when they have the ball, play on the front foot and with such commitment to get men forward, the risk is obvious. It’s part of the reason why Fabinho was brought in but Milner has often been the man to plug the gaps when teams try to break.
Operating in tandem with Keïta, it’s created a new option for Klopp, as the two can interchange, bringing a new level of fluidity in midfield. Instead of the nominated defensive midfielder, box-to-box or attacking playmaker in a 4-3-3, the two have already developed an understanding to switch.
Milner’s previous life as a cross-heavy winger also means he finds himself in wide positions creating and benefitting from overlaps alongside Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
In has to be noted that, of course, the level of opposition hasn’t been at elite level, with respect to Palace who did play very well at Selhurst Park and if Milner is to continue as a regular presence he will find greater challenges ahead. Trips to Tottenham and Chelsea in September stand out.
But crucially Milner may already have fulfilled another task. Because his outstanding start to the season coupled with Wijnaldum’s performance have enabled Klopp to be patient with Fabinho.
The Liverpool manager wants to give the Brazilian time to adapt – to Liverpool, the city, the Premier League and around his team-mates. He hinted as much in discussing Keïta’s integration into the squad post-Palace, when he said the midfielder is still too shy and only speaks to Sadio Mané.
In Fabinho’s case, that self-consciousness and introversion must be even greater. But like Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain before him he has time to find his feet and learn at a more sensible pace rather than be plunged straight into first-team action, which would clearly be counter-productive.
Assuming he does eventually establish himself in the side and become a fixture and the asset Klopp paid £43.7m to bring to the club, one man who’ll deserve gratitude for his assistance will be Milner. No doubt, the veteran will be standing on the field right next to him.