James Milner (born 4 January 1986) was signed from Manchester City on a free transfer in June 2015. Throughout his career at Leeds United, Newcastle United and Manchester City he was always deployed in a central midfield role. In his first two seasons at Liverpool this was also where he was deployed by both Brendan Rogers and Jürgen Klopp. But this season has seen Milner move position to left back after reported Liverpool target Ben Chilwell decided to sign a new long term contract for Claudio Ranieri’s successful new Leicester City team.
Jürgen Klopp was aware as were all Liverpool fans that Alberto Moreno could be a constant liabilty at the left back, he was fault for goals against Sevilla in last seasons Europa League cup final and in the first game of the season against Arsenal, hence the interest in Chilwell and other left back options during the summer, so as a compromise on not signing any of his targets Klopp decided to use James Milner as an uncanny left back in pre-season. I wasn’t amazed by the idea of having a right footed midfielder as a left back. In fact, I was thinking the left footed centre back Ragnar Klavan would be a more obvious left back option than Milner, but the same Milner is now about to prove both me and all other doubting fans wrong.
In an interview with Liverpool Echo 30th July 2016, Milner said: “The manager pulled me at the start. He’s obviously looked at his squad and what players he has. He’s asked me if I was willing to cover the full-back positions, basically, if there was a point in the season where injuries or like at Man United last season in the Europa League when I played left back. We had a conversation about it and I told him it’s not my favourite position and not one I particularly like playing, but he’s the manager and if he wants me to play there, I’ll play there. The team comes first, always has, always will.”
We have seen James Milner doing a good job as a left back both in pre-season against Barcelona and in the Premier League against teams like Tottenham, Leicester and Hull. It makes me think of a couple of other players in Liverpool’s history who were converted to new roles as they became Liverpool players. One is more famous than the other, but both share the same story.
Let me start by mentioning Nick Tanner, who originally was signed from Bristol Rovers as a central midfielder in 1988 and converted into a centre back. He only made 51 Liverpool appearances before a back injury cut his career short in 1994, and he retired from active football. In the 1991/92 season, Tanner played 32 games for Liverpool after Gary Gillespie had been sold to Celtic. A midfielder turned into a centre back.
Then LFC chief scout Ron Yeats was sent out to watch a particular Bristol Rovers player, but another player caught his eye: the left-sided midfielder Nick Tanner. Yeats could see that Tanner was a defender-to-be. One good centre back option. Kenny Dalglish signed the non league player Tanner, who all of a sudden found himself in the company of a lot of first class defenders and midfielders. He was duly sent out on loan spells with Norwich City and Swindon Town to gain experience, and wasn’t really utilized very often. He did play a few games in the 1989/90 season, but not enough games to be awarded a league champions medal. Greame Souness came in and gave him the chance to be a first team regular soon after Gary Gillespie had moved on to Scotland.
Talking to LFChistory.net Nick Tanner said: “I only cost £20,000! I can honestly say I did my best in every game and feel I gave good value for money at a very difficult time for the club.”
Let me now mention a much more merited example here. Ray Kennedy was Bill Shankly’s very last signing. He was signed from Arsenal where he was a striker. Bob Paisley looked at him and thought to himself: “This is a midfielder.” Paisley had known that Kennedy had been a midfelder as a youth player and converted him into that role. Ray Kennedy became the kind of left-sided midfielder who could score a lot of goals and also create chances for others, like John Toshack, Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish. People talked of him as one of the Liverpool players European opposition teams feared the most because he was so versatile, fast and smart.
Ray Kennedy won trophies as an Arsenal striker. Shankly signed him as a striker, Paisley soon after converted him into a fantastic midfielder who would collect lots of trophies for a new club in a very new position as compared to the position he was used to playing in at Arsenal.
So let’s return to James Milner. He is a good tackler, he is fast, he is right footed, but man, can he use that right foot! He creates assists, he starts Liverpool’s attacking game from behind, and runs up field to act like a left winger with an eye for what goes on in the box, into which he has the ability to pass the ball brilliantly for players like Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Adam Lallana, Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi to make the best of. As things stand we as fans might not have to wait for all the times Milner will be caught out of position at the left back, but trust that if he does what he’s best at he will create lots of chances going forward as all Liverpool players are pushing forward at high speed.
I’m no longer all that worried about that lacking left back option to an ever-erratic Alberto Moreno as James Milner seems to fit the bill nicely.
Written by @magneleokarlsen