Jordan Henderson and James Milner present an odd little puzzle for Liverpool’s midfield. In many ways, their playing style is very similar. Both are big runners that have a sort of “engine” quality to them. Though Milner floated from position to position at Manchester City, Henderson has predominantly played that box-to-box central midfielder role at Liverpool. Now that they’re to be the new midfield pairing (?) in Anfield, we need to take a look at a few things: how they’ve played for England when together, what’s required for Milner and Henderson to be a successful partnership in the 2015/16 season, and what clubs to model Liverpool’s midfield after.
One of the most-sounded shouts for Henderson and Milner in Liverpool’s midfield is their playing time for England. Both players have found their way into the national side several times. Milner, being older, has registered more caps (54) than Henderson (22), but their debuts were just over a year apart. Milner was called up for the first time in February 2009, but didn’t see the pitch until after the World Cup that year in August. Henderson’s first call to the England side in November 2010 earned him a start with Milner, though he was subbed off in the 49th minute.
Looking at that alone, it would appear that nearly five years on Henderson and Milner have been playing together for a while now. The minutes they might have earned as a midfield pairing would make this upcoming season look a little more promising, no? But, a closer inspection of England’s last five years with the two box-to-box midfielders in the same side provides an alternative reality.
In total, Jordan Henderson and James Milner have played together for 306 minutes while wearing the Three Lions across their chest. Since 2010, less than four matches have been completed with both the midfielders on the pitch. Since their national team play has been cited so often as a basis for their success in Liverpool’s midfield, it strikes me as odd that no in-depth look has been done. But this, like anything, can be broken down even further.
The most oft-cited coupling of Henderson and Milner has been in the central midfield. Using a “double engine” tactic, the two are supposedly going to use their legs to both attack and defend. The basis for this argument is, of course, that there is some form of a defensive midfielder slotted in between them and the back line, creating a shield in front of the defenders. Again, their time in the national side is quoted here. Looking at the chart above, Henderson and Milner have played a total of 74 minutes (all in friendlies) in the middle of the park.
Another idea is that Milner might play as the defensive midfielder while someone like Phillipe Coutinho or Emre Can slot in beside Henderson in central midfield. Disregarding Milner’s request to play in central midfield and Liverpool’s apparent acceptance of that demand, there is a chance that this set-up could come to fruition. In fact, Milner and Henderson have played in this sort of formation for the national team. Brilliant, right? Again, the minute total is small: 64 minutes since Gerrard retired from the national team after the 2014 World Cup.
How Does This Work, Then?
So what does this mean? That the two are incapable of playing in the midfield together based on experience? Of course not. This could be an overuse of statistics that leads to the conclusion I’m looking for. What it does mean is that there’s little experience from either playing together as central midfielders, so there’s going to be some adjustment required. Both Henderson and Milner like to push forward and bring the ball into the attacking phase of play. While that’s great, they both can’t be doing it at the same time. Someone has to stay back and defend. Is it Milner, who’s played less in the defensive midfielder position and has enjoyed a more attacking role in general? Or is it Henderson, who’s proven that his attacking movement and passing are crucial to Liverpool’s press forward? Only time will tell for the upcoming season.
So what’s required for their success? In my opinion, a proper defensive midfielder playing in behind the two in the centre of the pitch would allow for their sort of ranging attacking play. At the club currently, we have…oh. There’s Lucas, who’s played more consistently as a defensive midfielder, but is largely sounded as a player that can be improved upon. There’s also Can, who would fit well into that role and is young enough to mold as Liverpool see fit, but would have to sacrifice better parts of his play (long runs from deep on the pitch, good vision, etc.) to fill the role.
And that’s about it.
While many Liverpool fans have been shouting for a proper defensive midfielder for years, each passing window without one makes the shout look more like a pipe dream. Or, at least, under Brendan Rodgers, it might be. Operating under the assumption that he’s here to stay, there are other options we’ll have to look at in order to find success in the midfield this season. What are some models we can look at that operate under the same blessings/restraints?
Andrea Pirlo is no defensive midfielder, at least in the shielding sense of the phrase. Though the Italian is moving to the United States this summer, the Juventus midfield with Pirlo as the deepest man is worth taking a look at.
In the most recent Anfield Index tactics podcast, Dave Hendrick mentioned that a defensive midfielder falls under three roles: a defensive shield, a destroyer, and a deep-lying playmaker. Pirlo clearly falls under the last of those three categories. What made that system work for Juventus was the style of play that Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal operated within. Pirlo was allowed to make advancing passes into the final third while Vidal and Pogba played serious box-to-box roles for the reigning Italian champions. The Frenchman and Chilean would push forward and press the opposing midfield into their own half while coming back to defend when possession was lost. Sure, Pirlo was near his own defenders, but the added support was necessary to succeed. In addition, one of Pogba and Vidal were never far away from their Italian compatriot.
In this system, Liverpool could very well find success. Henderson and Milner are both capable of taking the ball away from opposition, and their transition play from defense to attack is quality. The question to be asked here is: is either willing/able to stay close to Lucas or Can in order to prevent an opposition counter attack from coming to fruition? With Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno presumably starting in the full-back positions, the right and left flanks will be exposed from time to time. Can either Henderson or Milner commit to playing it safe while the others press forward?
Manchester United Model
There are several reasons to believe that Michael Carrick’s play in the second half of last season was integral to United’s success. His distribution of the ball was superb and his defensive positional sense was on point as he fell in front of a shaky defensive line. This allowed players like Marouane Fellaini (typically a defensive midfield player) to range forward and play to his strengths.
Would this work for Liverpool? With the current squad, no. As unfortunate as it may be, Lucas is incapable of playing alone in front of the back line while other range forward into the attack. His decision-making is good in some areas (when to take a yellow card, when to clear the ball), but weak in others (where to pass the ball, general positional sense). Can is a promising prospect for this kind of position, but his pure defensive ability is questionable. The German can play a good deep-lying playmaker, but he hasn’t developed/been molded into a pure defensive midfielder. With the recent purchase of Christian Benteke from Aston Villa for £32.5 million, there’s a funding problem left out in the open as well. Do Liverpool have the finances to pay for another transfer? There are some (Gregorz Krychowiak comes to mind) that could be purchased for less than £20 million. But if £20 million isn’t there, then that option negates this tactic.
The Bottom Line
There’s a chance Milner and Henderson can succeed as Liverpool’s midfield pair. There really, truly is. But there’s a seeming reliance on other players around them that makes or breaks that success. Preseason has shown promise, but preseason is also preseason. At this point, Liverpool looks less and less willing to go in for a defensive midfielder of any style or model. In essence, what’s done is done, and the new season looms ahead as ever.