Perhaps the most remarkable thing about James Milner is that he likes pineapple on pizza. If you didn’t know him but had to guess what his pizza of choice would be you’d probably go for a Margherita with a pint of Ribena to wash it all down.
There’s nothing exciting about a Margherita pizza.
On the surface, it’s the Milner of the pizza world. It’s simple, it’s reliable and you can’t really go wrong with it. But the 33-year-old is full of surprises, not just away from the football pitch but on it, too.
He was the match-winner against Leicester City, scoring a stoppage-time penalty to keep Liverpool’s 100 per cent record in the Premier League alive. Goals are at a premium for the versatile midfielder these days so he was sure to make the most of it by breaking character with a Kylian Mbappé-inspired celebration.
Milner’s last start for the Reds before the visit of the Foxes on Saturday was in the Carabao Cup away to MK Dons. In that match, he played left-back but still finished the game with a goal and an assist. He repeated the feat against Brendan Rodgers’ side on Saturday.
His pass for the opener at Anfield was everything the Liverpool No.7 is; underappreciated.
Under pressure in the defensive third, Milner exchanged passes with Andrew Robertson on the left flank before clipping a left-footed ball forward. At first glance, it could have appeared a hopeful punt forward with Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira quickly closing in on him. But when watching the replay you clearly see that it was a pass, not a punt.
Perfectly weighted, it evaded Jonny Evans and Sadio Mané was able to get it under control without breaking stride. If Paul Pogba or Kevin De Bruyne had made that pass it would be on loop on Sky Sports for the next week.
But because it’s Milner there’s no fuss. But this probably suits him. He’s never been one for huge fanfare. The former Manchester City man seems to just go about his business like it’s nothing special. He turns up to pre-season in the best shape. He sacrifices part of his game for the good of the team. He carries out Jürgen Klopp’s instructions to the T.
Despite the fashion in which Liverpool won the game, the Reds dominated Leicester. The Foxes had put together an impressive run of form heading to Anfield and there was a genuine feeling, at least in the press, that an upset could be on the cards.
These are our best games based on xG against. Leicester game this past weekend ranking 5th best. pic.twitter.com/rdXzxLc3ka
— Ikigai (@BuniNebiri) October 7, 2019
Klopp’s side had complete control. Not just of the ball but of the space.
Jamie Vardy, a player who usually hurts Liverpool, was completely nullified while Leicester managed just two shots. Their expected goals total for the match was 0.10, a massive 3.65 below what the Reds managed to amass in a one-sided match.
In the lead up to kick-off, there was talk surrounding whether or not Dejan Lovren could handle Vardy and how a Liverpool made up of Milner, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum would cope against the energetic and fresh Leicester midfield of Youri Tielemans, Ndidi and Dennis Praet.
But, and without the credit he deserves, Klopp pre-empted this and adapted. Liverpool played more of a 4-1-4-1 shape with Roberto Firmino on the left, Mané on the right and Mohamed Salah leading the line. When in possession, the Reds weren’t as aggressive as they have been in the opening weeks.
The defensive line wasn’t as high. Both full-backs had more cover from the midfield players with Milner filling in at left-back and Wijnaldum at right-back when called upon. There was a solidity and a flexibility to this team that starting Milner allows.
When Klopp wants to shut teams down, he turns to his No.7. He did the same against Red Bull Salzburg in last week's frantic Champions League clash.
Liverpool had allowed a 3-0 lead to disappear. The game was stretched and the Reds just couldn’t get control of proceedings. The German tactician then brought on Milner to replace Jordan Henderson and explained his reasoning in the post-match press conference: “We needed to control the game again. We changed the system as well to give them a few more questions.”
Salah scored what turned out to be the winner in the 69th minute and Liverpool managed the final 20 minutes with relative ease. A key part to that was Milner. He did nothing exceptional, nothing to make a highlight reel, but he kept play ticking over and filled in for both full-backs. The 33-year-old ensured the Reds weren’t stretched or outnumbered in any phase. He did exactly what was needed to ensure the ship was steadied.
Milner will have the odd nightmare match where he looks off the pace. It’s a given as he heads into his twilight years. But he’s arguably one of the most intelligent, at least in terms of tactical acumen, players Liverpool have. He does his job and it benefits the team.
In the past week, he’s shown exactly why Klopp is a such a fan of his. Pineapple on pizza aside, it’s easy to see why the Reds are reportedly eager to tie him to a longer deal.