“Thankfully it went it in the net and we’ve got the three points.”
And that is how – if you are James Milner – you describe the goal that simultaneously earns your side a fifth successive victory and makes you the top Premier League scorer in a team that also contains the stellar attacking talents of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Thankfully it went in the net and we got three points. Top scorer? This is not supposed to happen when you move to left-back.
Milner reluctantly left Manchester City last summer for two reasons – to play more regular football and to play in his preferred central midfield position. Fifteen months to the day after signing a contract at Liverpool, he was playing at left-back and being the living embodiment of this Liverpool side of contrasts – looking poor defensively in the first half (particularly at the corner from which they conceded, joining Joel Matip in allowing Leroy Fer to get goal-side) and then being positive, forward-thinking and aggressive in the second half.
We have been screaming ‘buy a left-back’ since late last season but we are happy to admit that Jurgen Klopp knew best; in the absence of the right left-back being available, he opted to stick with the right-sided left-back he knew would never let him down. There will be defensive blips – his positioning led to Tottenham’s equaliser in their 1-1 draw – but Milner’s quality and composure on the ball have made those blips a small price to pay. From stop-gap to vital cog in just a few short weeks.
Easy to overlook given the form of the attacking players but James Milner's start to the season has been superb, regardless of those goals
— Dominic King (@DominicKing_DM) October 1, 2016
“I remember speaking to Milly the first time about possibly playing left-back and said: ‘what do you think?’,” said Klopp on Monday Night Football. “He said: ‘but I won’t get the ball’. I said: ‘forget this, you will get the ball much more often than you can imagine’.”
Klopp was right; Milner may covet Georginio Wijnaldum’s spot in the centre of midfield but plays more passes per 90 minutes than either the Dutchman or Adam Lallana; he is creating more chances than either. His relationship with his new position may have started out as a marriage of convenience but love has since blossomed. Klopp has found a way to not only solve his left-back problems but give Milner the regular football he craved as 30 appeared on the horizon.
Not since 2009/10 has Milner started more than 30 Premier League games in one season. That sequence is surely about to end, thanks to Klopp’s belief that an old dogged midfielder can learn new defensive tricks.