Red Letter: Milner the quiet hero of late Liverpool surge

Date published: Thursday 21st April 2016 7:50

James Milner: Central to Liverpool's improved form of late

James Milner gets some rare and richly-deserved praise in Dave Tindall’s look at another successful week for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

I would have expected a win over local rivals Everton to inspire me to write an ode to Jurgen Klopp. Something along the lines of how his incredible will-to-win got Liverpool over the line in the German’s first taste of a Merseyside derby.

But, let’s be honest, it was an absolute doddle. A shot count off the scale, Adam Lallana trying to beat the world-record for Cruyff turns and the last 30 minutes being nothing more than shooting practice. Rather than cajoling his team into one last push from the touchline, Klopp could actually sit back in his seat and even laugh his head off at Lucas’s woeful attempt to make it 5-0.

So, instead, I’m going to devote a large part of this column to a certain Reds midfielder who is winning over us LFC fans in their droves.

In 2011, Liverpool forked out £18.5million for England winger Stewart Downing. Though overpriced, it made sense. Downing would supply the crosses for Andy Carroll and the two were expected to be a potent combination.

Downing played 36 games in the Premier League that season and provided not a single goal, nor a single assist.

In the summer of 2015, Liverpool secured James Milner on a free transfer from Manchester City. It looked a shrewd move, but the Leeds-born midfielder was soon a figure of muttering derision.

Wearing the iconic No.7 sported by Liverpool legends such as Kenny Dalglish and Luis Suarez led to the obvious unfavourable comparisons while, although not a direct replacement (nobody could do that), he was the nearest player in terms of position and experience the club would come to filling the void left by the departed Steven Gerrard.

But Milner is the epitome of the unflappable, consummate pro. If there were uncomplimentary noises from the fans, he never heard them. Or, if he did, there’s no way they would affect him.

Fast forward to April, 2016 and, while not exactly the darling of the Kop, Milner has surprised us all by raising himself above and beyond the role of trusty lieutenant we’d envisaged for him.

Daniel Sturridge James Milner Liverpool celebration

Milner has become a key figure in this late-season surge. A quiet hero. He may not grab the Roy of the Rovers winning goal like Stevie G, but he’ll probably provide the cross for it.

While Downing had zeros in both columns, Milner has now scored five goals and registered 11 assists in the Premier League this season and there are still five games to go. In the assists chart, that tally of 11 puts him one in front of the much-heralded trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Dele Alli and Dmitri Payet, level with David Silva and Player of the Year favourite Riyad Mahrez and just one behind Christian Eriksen.

Okay, Milner’s 11 assists are seven behind Mesut Ozil, but want a more recent thermometer check? In 2016, Milner has provided 10 assists to Ozil’s three. Our man is coming on strong as the German, like Arsenal, fades away.

Milner may not be as pleasing on the eye as those fellow assists makers but we’re not complaining. You’re doing just great James. Be as boring as you like.

Add in his assists from the Europa League, including that superb cross for Dejan Lovren’s memorable late winner against Borussia Dortmund, and Milner has 14 (Europe also takes his goal count to seven).

Seven of those have come from crosses so Milner’s biggest threat is when he’s out wide. It’s strange. The corners he takes with his favoured right foot can be dreadful, often failing to clear the first defender. But when he shifts it to his left, he appears to be deadly when crossing a moving ball with his unfavoured left.

Add in the fact that he’s the club’s best penalty taker – he’s already scored winners from the spot against Swansea and Augsburg and helped us win a semi-final shootout against Stoke in the Capital One Cup – and Milner has become an absolutely vital cog in this Liverpool machine.

Fortress Anfield

Before the 4-0 romp over Everton, somewhat remarkably, alarmingly in fact, Liverpool had failed to register back-to-back home wins in the Premier League this season.

That unwanted stat has been wiped out in style and, indeed, the Reds have racked up four goals in each of the last three home games if you add in the Dortmund triumph.

Klopp couldn’t quite work his magic at first and clearly noted there was a problem when telling the fans he felt ‘alone’ when they walked out as the team headed towards a 2-1 home defeat against Crystal Palace back in November.

That was smart. Klopp has so much goodwill that there was only going to be one winner in that argument. The early leavers felt an uneasy mix of guilt and shame. Our boss had planted a seed.

The atmosphere inside Anfield has improved ever since and obviously went off the scale for those big European nights against Manchester United and Dortmund.

Liverpool celebrate fans

The numbers show it.

In Klopp’s first 14 games at Anfield, he witnessed five wins, six draws and three defeats.

In the last seven home games, Liverpool have won six and drawn against title-hunting Spurs. That’s a big turnaround. Five of the wins have come in late kick-offs. Can we play all our games at night please? The atmosphere is so much better.

Also note the goal count. In those difficult opening 14 games, we scored just 18 times. In the last seven, we’ve banged in 19.

The idea of Anfield becoming a fortress again may be a little off yet, but all those recent wins – and several against high-class opposition – means the process has started

Real opportunity

I’ve managed to watch a bit of Liverpool’s Europa League semi-final rivals, Villarreal, in action over the last week.

Okay, they were away games, but a 2-1 loss at Rayo Vallecano and 3-0 defeat at Real Madrid didn’t exactly fill me with fear.

To be fourth in La Liga means you’re not a bad team, but they’re 18 points off third spot so very much ‘the best of the rest’.

Quite simply, Liverpool have a golden opportunity to reach the final.

So, another week passes and we still have two chances of securing a Champions League spot.

Is the path there via a top four Premier League finish completely closed just yet? Win our game in hand and we’re only four points behind Man City in third.

Maybe I should reel it in and be more like James Milner. Let’s take it one game at a time.

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