In the absence of want-away midfielder Emre Can, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp selected James Milner as part of his midfield three against Porto on Wednesday evening.
It was Liverpool’s first appearance in the competition’s knockout stage since 2009 and arguably the most important game of Klopp’s tenure so far.
Since arriving at the club Milner has been unable to nail down a central slot, had Can have been fit he would have undoubtedly been selected ahead of the Englishman. Another obstacle to Milner getting the green light in the middle of the park is his versatility, he spent the whole of last season deployed as a makeshift left-back.
With Andy Robertson having gradually made that spot his own Milner, has been largely confined to the bench this season.
Klopp has generally opted for a midfield of Georginio Wijnaldum, Can and captain Jordan Henderson. Can is widely rumored to be in talks to sign a pre-contract agreement with Juventus. Therefore, Milner starting ahead of him could be a more regular occurrence between now and the end of the season or at least until the issue is resolved.
If he is, it will not be to the detriment of the side.
Milner showed his quality this evening. RTE’s Liam Brady suggested before the game that he was a workhorse that lacked any real creativity, yet he ended the game with two assists. For his first, he won the ball deep in the oppositions half – something that is sure to have delighted Klopp – before drifting around a defender with a drop of the shoulder and curling an effort against the post. Mo Salah took over from there and juggled the ball into the net.
With the game and quite probably the tie over with 70 minutes played and a 3-0 lead he galloped up the pitch to offer an overlap before coolly squaring the ball for Roberto Firmino to slot away.
Aside from these two pivotal moments, his all round play was fantastic. Henderson is widely criticised for his lack of passing range – so often he receives the ball from one of his defenders and lays it straight off to another. He is never on the half-turn ready to play the ball forward. That didn’t matter as much on Wednesday because Milner was willing to open his body, pass forward and get his team moving in the right direction at every opportunity.
While this meant he ended the game with a pass completion rate of just 81% and Henderson’s was 88%, taking the burden away from the captain was ultimately beneficial for the team.
This isn’t something we see regularly enough from Can either; too often he elects to play the easy ball. When you have two of three players doing that against a decent side it can be difficult to exert continual, controlled forward pressure. Liverpool didn’t have that problem against Porto, and they could have scored more than five.
Liverpool’s front three of Firmino, Salah and Sadio Mane has been lavished with praise this season. If Milner is given the chance to continue feeding them the sharp, incisive balls he played at the Dragao, Liverpool will finish the season strong.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish football podcast, we preview the 2018 SSE Airtricity League season, hear from Ronan Finn, Liam Buckley, Shane Keegan and Ollie Horgan, and we also pay tribute to the great Liam Miller.