James Milner has long been known for his versatility, traditionally across the midfield, but it was a surprise to many when Jurgen Klopp deployed him at left-back against Burnley back in August. It wasn’t the most convincing performance from the Englishman as the Reds slipped to a 2-0 defeat, but his manager stuck with him in the unorthodox role for the trip to Tottenham the following week, where Milner was much more confident, and scored a penalty in a 1-1 draw.
Since then, the 31 year old had grown into the position incredibly well, and played as the left-back in 26 of Liverpool’s 27 league games since that trip to Turf Moor, missing only a 4-2 win at Crystal Palace through illness. In the process, he’s kept natural left-back Albert Moreno out of the team and prevented young Joe Gomez from making his mark on Merseyside following a return from injury. Former Liverpool player Terry McDermott has said of Milner’s position switch: “He has been an absolute revelation there.” That’s quite a statement from a man who knows a thing or two about playing left-back for the Reds, with McDermott having spent eight years at Anfield in the 1970s and 80s, winning five league titles and three European Cups in that time.
I would go even as far to say that Milner has this campaign become the Premier League’s best left-back, or least in the top three, and he certainly deserves some consideration when it comes to the PFA Team of the Season. Although goals do not define a good left-back, it is certainly an added bonus to provide some sort of scoring threat. Milner has seven goals so far this season, whilst no one else in his position apart from Charlie Daniels (3) has more than two.
All of these strikes may have come from the penalty spot, but there’s more to that that meets the eye. The 31-year-old’s record from 12 yards really is quite incredible. He has scored from his last 15 spot-kicks, not missing since November 2009 for Aston Villa against Bolton. It’s a reliability that few other teams in the Premier League can possess – Jermain Defoe has scored five out of five for Sunderland this season, but no other player who has taken more than three has an 100% record. If he manages to net three more from the spot this season, then Milner will match the records of Reds legends Steven Gerrard (2013-14) and John Aldridge (1987-88) for most penalties scored in a season. Speaking of records, Milner became the Premier League’s luckiest ever charm this season as has carried on a remarkable streak of not losing a single top flight game in which he has scored in, making it 47 by netting against Manchester City earlier this month. Granted, this doesn’t say too much about the quality of a player, he took the record off Darius Vassell after all, but it’s a fairly impressive achievement and emphasises how important he is to this Liverpool side.
Sticking with attacking traits, to former Newcastle man’s tally of three assists this season is only beaten by Jose Holebas and Ryan Bertrand (both 4), and this is largely down to his equally strong stats in terms of chances created and crosses completed. Here’s a top five for both of these stats per game of left-backs who have played at least 10 Premier League matches this season.
Milner ranks second for both of these stats behind Daley Blind, but the Dutchman actually only just makes the list, having made exactly 10 appearances at left-back for Manchester United this season. In terms of total chances created across 2016-17, Milner leads the way with 41, with a sizeable gap to Christian Fuchs (28) in second. Similarly, taking the campaign in its entirety, Milner has completed more crosses than anyone else with 38. Once again, Christian Fuchs (23) is second, but once again, he’s quite a way behind. To finish off looking at the 31-year-old’s ability going forward, let’s assess his dribbling. It may not be quite as good as his crossing and chance creating, but Milner completes an average of 0.8 dribbles per game – six left-backs with 10 or more appearances complete more, with 11 completing less – putting Milner on the edge of the top third in the division.
The Englishman’s defending doesn’t rank as highly as his attacking traits, but one stat he does top is total crosses blocked across the season with 26. If you look at per game, Milner (1) is second to Aaron Cresswell (1.2), but much like Blind, the West Ham man’s average is slightly skewed due to the fact he has only played 12 games – less than half Milner’s appearance tally. Similarly, for total clearances, he is only beaten by Stephen Ward (118) and Christian Fuchs (96) with a tally of 81. In terms of per game, Milner scores three, which eight players can better. The one statistic that doesn’t portray him in the best light is his interception rate. The Leeds native only makes an average of 1.2 interceptions per game, the worst record out of all the top flight left-backs with at least 10 appearances along with Aaron Cresswell. But hey, no one is perfect!
Of the six statistics I’ve looked at (three attacking excluding goals and assists and three defending), Milner ranks in the top five of three of them. Add in his impressive penalty record, leadership qualities (he is Liverpool’s vice-captain and has taken the armband in Jordan Henderson’s recent absence) and seemingly being a ‘lucky charm’ for Reds, and for me you find yourself with the Premier League’s best left-back. Obviously stats never tell the whole story, with England’s first choice left back Danny Rose barely being recognised in the figures, and everyone will have their different opinions.
Milner’s ability to seamlessly adapt to a whole new position at the age of 31 has really impressed me. A player who is not the fastest, doesn’t pull out tricks and flicks or show an awful lot of charisma has earned a reputation with some for being ‘dull’. Indeed, the Twitter account ‘Boring Milner’ has over half a million followers. But is boring just another word for reliable? Absolutely. He’s not overly exciting, but James Milner gets his job done better than the majority of left-backs in the Premier League, and this is severely underrated.