Liverpool have emerged as the most likely challengers to Manchester City after some eye-catching transfer business, but an unlikely player stood out during their opening day victory over West Ham United. James Milner has been an important player for the club since he joined on a free transfer in 2015. He has been used as a winger, central midfielder and left-back, thriving in every role.
Although the 32-year-old has his limitations, there is no doubting his adaptability and work rate. These are to qualities that allow him to fit well into Jurgen Klopp’s plans. Milner will know that he is unlikely to be a regular starter, but he is able to come in and do an excellent job when required. That was evident against West Ham as he was one of the best players on the pitch.
He was asked to play in a midfield three alongside Gini Wijnaldum and Naby Keita. The 32-year-old covered a lot of ground and helped Liverpool dominate the central areas. Out of possession, he harried the West Ham midfielders and forced them into several errors that can’t be accounted for by the match statistics. He covered 12.55km during the game, which is impressive for a player of his age.
However, it was in possession that he was allowed to stand out most, as he completed 122 touches during the match. This was more than any other player on the pitch. The next most touches were made by Trent Alexander-Arnold (98) and he managed more than 20 fewer than Milner. The midfielder was reliable with the ball, as he completed 93% of his passes and distributed the ball effectively to launch several Liverpool attacks.
Milner made three key passes and earned the assist for Sadio Mane’s first goal. Meanwhile, his set-piece delivery caused problems for the West Ham defence. It was an excellent display from the England international and it will have impressed Klopp. After the signings of Keita and Fabinho, the competition for places has increased significantly. The 32-year-old utility man has laid down an early marker and showed why he remains a very good option.
There has been a lot of debate about who will be the player to take the third midfield spot once the seasons gets fully underway. It is expected that Fabinho will come in to start as the number six in the system, as he has excellent defensive qualities and will develop into one of the best defensive midfielders in the Premier League. Keita is one of the first names on the team-sheet already and that leaves one place.
As captain, Jordan Henderson will be expecting to be the regular starter alongside the two new signings. However, there remain a number of Liverpool fans that don’t want their skipper to be a regular starter as the team looks to progress into title challengers. Wijnaldum performed well on the opening day, but there remain doubts about his consistency.
During pre-season, there were few calling for Milner to be the third midfielder. However, his opening day performance indicated that he could be the right man for the job. At the age of 32, the midfielder could be ready to have the best season of his career.