James Milner – From benchwarmer to leader

The question was posed between a few of my writing colleagues last year – “If you could build a team from the signing of one English player, who would that be?”

Not surprisingly some started with goalkeepers, Joe Hart (Manchester City) and Jack Butland (Stoke City). Others began with a youth policy, John Stones (Everton) and Chris Smalling (Manchester United).


Maybe the best place to start were goal scorers and playmakers, Harry Kane (Spurs), Ross Barkley (Everton) and Raheem Sterling (Manchester City) all came into the mix.

My choice hadn’t and hasn’t changed for the past five years. He’s now 29-years-old, and has played over 50 times for England.

He was named PFA Young Player of the Season, also named in the PFA Team of the Season for the 2009/10 Premier League season.

Other title and trophy wins include two Premier League titles in 2011/12 and 2013/14, the FA Cup 2010/11, and the Football League Cup 2013/14.

However he’s spent so much time warming benches he could have become a part time park keeper.

Dour, rugged, workmanlike, reliable, safe, secure sometimes described as simply boring are some of the terms to summarise his style and personality.

All may be right, either way the Yorkshireman would be first on my team sheet every game. Step forward James Milner.

Under the stewardship of Manuel Pellegrini at Manchester City Milner didn’t have a purpose, role or future.

As a slower, more considered technical game plan came to the Etihad Stadium the further Milner dropped down the pecking order.

He didn’t start each game with a shirt, he began most games in a tracksuit. A substitute’s tracksuit. His England career wasn’t much different.

If a full back needed midfield cover to paper over dodgy defensive frailties or suspect fitness levels, Milner would play the cameo role without fuss or fanfare.

Few managers club or country picked him on ability alone. His role was to “do a job” no chance of a team being built around him.

In June 2015, Milner joined Liverpool, bizarrely on a free transfer from Manchester City. Brendan Rodgers saw him as a regular starter deciding to make him the club’s vice-captain.

As Rodgers’ time at Liverpool came to end earlier in the year, Milner’s career was caught in limbo. If the wrong manager was appointed Milner would once again be allocated bench warming duties.

Then something simple but monumental was about to change the career and status of James Milner. Jurgen Klopp was coming to town. Liverpool F.C. appointed the ex-Borussia Dortmund supremo as the man to succeed Rodgers.

Klopp’s successful game plan was known throughout Europe. High intensity play, pressing the opposition, minimal touches on the ball, lung busting levels of fitness…and he wasn’t about to change his doctrine.

I’m sure for certain Liverpool players his style was a major concern. Would they fit in? But for Milner who doesn’t possess a whole range of technical abilities in his footballing locker, no such fears.

His superior level of fitness coupled with a winning mentality was straight out of the Klopp manual on footballer requirements.

Due to Jordan Henderson’s long term foot injury, Milner took over captaincy of Liverpool. He quickly become the talisman of Klopp’s game plan on the pitch.

Philippe Coutinho, Emre Can and Adam Lallana took a number of games to reach the mileage required to satisfy Klopp. Their fitness levels have improved substantially.

Even Roberto Firmino seems to understand the work required if he wants to secure a place in the starting line-up.


Then, on a cold Saturday November evening, Liverpool went to Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, Klopp’s blueprint and Milner’s leadership came together as the perfect partnership. One not made in heaven but at Melwood, Liverpool’s training ground.

Klopp didn’t risk Daniel Sturridge, leaving Christian Benteke as a spectator. He chose a team of runners. In English parlance, a team of grafters.

The game began as it would continue for over 90 minutes. Milner’s marauders didn’t allow City any time on the ball, they were harried and harassed into making mistake after mistake.

The error rate was like an infectious disease from goalkeeper to subs, every player caught a dose. Some of City’s 30-something-year-olds (Yaya Toure/Martin Demichelis) looked like 45-years old-playing in a testimonial game.

The pace and aggression of Liverpool’s play was too intense for their aging bones. City were 1-0 down after seven minutes, 3-0 at the thirty minute mark and 4-1 losers when the final whistle released City from their torturous evening.

My Man of the Match by a running mile was captain James Milner. When he hit the grass he got up, hunted down the opposition, chased again and again. All the while he drove on his colleagues to do more for the cause.

When Dejan Lovren went down with what looked like cramp, Klopp was clearly angry at the sight. Besides allowing the beleaguered City players a break it was an indication he wasn’t happy one of his players couldn’t go the distance.

Liverpool excelled on the day but won’t be able to play like this every week. They don’t have the depth of quality in their squad, and some of the younger players will make mistakes due to inexperience and fatigue as the season progresses.

That’s for the manager to worry about and resolve as the January transfer window approaches, but Klopp is well aware Milner can play with this type of intensity and energy each game. He has suddenly become the benchmark for Klopp’s style of play and Liverpool’s talisman.

Milner’s work ethic hasn’t changed throughout his career. With age he’s become physically stronger and now plays with a skill in leadership and a confidence unseen before.

Both national and team managers have decided against utilising his full potential. No such doubts from the Liverpool manager.

Klopp demands perspiration and leadership, in James Milner he’s found them both. A German building a team around an Englishman, it’s a funny old game.

The Author

Owen Peters

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