No one covers as much ground as the Englishman. His versatility has seen him cover three positions this campaign and he is the Champions League's top assist maker this season
'Boring' James Milner is Champions League finalists Liverpool's Mr Remarkable
Liverpool’s players were celebrating at the Stadio Olimpico, scene of two of their European Cup wins and, now, one of their most glorious Uefa Champions League defeats. They had lost 4-2 on the night, won 7-6 on aggregate and booked a final date with Real Madrid. Time for James Milner to enjoy himself.
“I might stretch to a Ribena,” said the teetotal midfielder drily. Some people have an image to live up to. Milner knows he has one to live down to. Meanwhile, his Twitter alter ego was declaring that: “The cups of tea are on me”. Boring James Milner, the social media parody, has cemented the impression that the Englishman is Liverpool’s yeoman dullard, a man whose interests stretch from cleaning his house to putting the rubbish out, but largely revolve around tea bags.
Milner has been intelligent and self-deprecating enough to play along. Like most caricatures, it works because elements of it feel believable. Milner’s defining attribute is something seemingly mundane: his running. Jurgen Klopp pointed out that his workhorse forward Roberto Firmino covered the most distance in Saturday’s 0-0 draw against Stoke City, but added a caveat: it was only because Milner did not start. Otherwise, no one comes close to him. Milner did not complete a pass for almost half an hour in the 2-1 win at Manchester City but still a relentless runner still ran 13.5km, 2km further than anyone else.
He has kept on running. It is a theme of his career. Klopp wondered if Milner was alive when Liverpool visited the Stadio Olimpico in 1984. Actually, he is only 32. His old-fashioned persona can make him seem older. So, too, his longevity. After debuting at 16, he has been playing Premier League football for half his life.
But he can be misunderstood and underestimated, even by his own employers. Manuel Pellegrini underused him at City. Klopp only started him in eight of Liverpool’s first 24 league games this season. He might have been allowed to leave in the summer; a high earner was redlined by the club’s Moneyballing owners.
And yet the adaptable Milner, who seems a dreary constant, has reinvented himself again. He did a fine impression of a left-back last season. He has taken over from a Brazilian No 10 of late. Since Philippe Coutinho’s £142 million (Dh709m) move to Barcelona, a scorer of spectacular goals has often been replaced by Milner, who has allied a no-nonsense attitude and a Stakhanovite work ethic with examples of ability that has gone overlooked in the rush to anoint him a prize bore. For good measure, he has compensated for the absence of the injured Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
A versatile player has done three jobs in one. He covers his full-backs in a formation where they otherwise lack protection, joins Jordan Henderson in the centre of midfield and supplies the front three. He has been a bona fide box-to-box midfielder, so ubiquitous he was in his own 18-yard area to concede a penalty in the first leg against Roma and score an own goal in the second, both unluckily. He was nevertheless terrific again on Wednesday.
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He has been outstanding in the Champions League’s knockout stages. He was exceptional in the 5-0 win over Porto. He was arguably the man of the tie against City. When Firmino headed in his corner against Roma last week, he became the first player to record nine assists in one Champions League campaign.
He is officially the most creative player in the world’s best competition. It doesn’t actually make Milner the most creative player in the history of football but it underlined how quietly remarkable he is, how interesting Boring James Milner actually is.