After spending around £170million on new recruits over the summer, with particular emphasis placed on strengthening their midfield options, it was one of the old guard who made the brightest start to the new season for Liverpool.
The evergreen James Milner earned widespread acclaim for his industrious, dependable and understatedly creative displays in the middle third of Jürgen Klopp’s side.
It shouldn’t really have come as any surprise; after all, the former Manchester City man set a new record with his nine Champions League assists last term. But it seemed the 32-year-old was finally beginning to get some long-overdue credit, hailed as the undroppable fulcrum around which the new arrivals – such as Fabinho, Naby Keïta and Xherdan Shaqiri – would have to battle to arrange themselves.
However, the endorsements of Milner have rung out longer than his early season form has lasted.
Primarily, there has been a stark decline in the Yorkshireman’s creativity of late. As the below chart illustrates, Milner’s average per 90 minutes for expected goals assisted (xA) – the measure of the quality and quantity of chances created – has fallen.
Since August 20, when Liverpool beat Crystal Palace 2-0 at Selhurst Park, the former England midfielder’s xA per 90 has dropped to just 0.1, having previously been 0.24 since September 2017.
This decline in creativity is also evident when comparing Milner’s stats for last season with his current averages. Last term, he was making 1.17 open-play key passes per 90, as well as playing 0.15 accurate through-balls, completing 0.61 take-ons and showing for goal 1.07 times.
Those averages have fallen to 0.54, 0.13, 0.4 and 0.67 respectively.
It has also been noticeable that Milner is playing more long passes than last season, too – 7.45 per 90 up from 6.69. But his accuracy over distance has been poor, completing just 54.4 per cent of his attempts, compared to last season’s 64.8 per cent. This in effect means he is losing possession three or more times per game from attempting long balls he is unable to find a red shirt with.
It’s not all bad news, though. Milner’s work-rate remains unquestionable, with his defensive numbers improving slightly on last term (combined tackles and interceptions per 90 are up at 4.19 from 4.08), and the fact he is touching the ball in the opposition’s penalty area less frequently (1.62 times per 90 down from 2.19) hints at a slightly deeper role, giving some context to his creative slide.
But Milner has already started eight of Liverpool‘s nine Premier League game this season, coming off the bench in the other. Last term, he was a starter in less than half of the Reds’ league fixtures, with 16 from 38.
In August, Klopp said that “age is no issue” for Milner, yet he afforded the veteran midfielder ample rest during the middle part of last season, with just two Premier League starts between mid-September and January 30.
It will be interesting to see whether the German tactician has similar plans to give Milner a quasi winter break this season, too.
The Liverpool No.7 will always be ready when called upon and surely has no complaints about his augmented involvement, but such a drastically increased workload must take a toll on a player at this stage of his career.
With 664 Premier League minutes already under his belt, only Georginio Wijnaldum, five years Milner’s junior, has spent more time in the Liverpool midfield so far this season.
Milner’s reliability and form in 2018 has seen him break free from his previous remit as the utility man of the Liverpool squad. Where before he flitted in and out of the team to fill gaps as they appeared – need a makeshift full-back? Milner’s your man; short on midfield options? He’s got you covered – now he has become a key player and regular starter for a side with designs on the Premier League title.
But, at 32, maybe his old role suited him just fine.