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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

James Milner, a true and quality jack-of-all-trades, has become Liverpool’s Mr Dependable

Steve Luckings writes James Milner embodies the best of the 'Total Football' kind of versatility, and that his rare aptitude at multiple positions can be key to Liverpool's title hopes.
James Milner of Liverpool celebrates as he scores his side’s fifth goal against Hull City last weekend. Julian Finney / Getty Images
James Milner of Liverpool celebrates as he scores his side’s fifth goal against Hull City last weekend. Julian Finney / Getty Images

It can be a manager’s dream but often a player’s curse. The idea of a player being versatile – one that can operate in a variety of positions without particularly excelling in one – has boosted many a career as well as harmed them.

During Clive Woodward’s early reign as England rugby coach, his philosophy – that noun that has become the buzzword for many a manager was also overused in the 1990s too – was for a breed of player based on the “Total Football” ideals of the great Dutch football teams of the 1970s. Woodward didn’t want players categorised by one position, instead wanting them to master the art of three or four, able to operate at a superior level to their opponents and fill in for a teammate at a moment’s notice.

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Austin Healey was the main benefactor of this approach, able to operate at scrum-half, fly-half and on the wing, making him an almost automatic selection. After the now-infamous 1998 “Tour from Hell” to South Africa and Australia, however, Woodward abandoned this approach, realising that, if his side were to conquer teams from the southern hemisphere, he would need specialists in each position.

As a result, Healey went from first choice to “utility” back – the man who can cover all positions. Jason Leonard, bedrock of the England scrum for much of the decade, was another victim, expected to cover both loose and tighthead positions from the bench.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson once said it was fringe players such as John O’Shea that won his team titles – a backhanded compliment if ever there was, given the galaxy of stars ahead of him at Old Trafford.

The point was valid though. O’Shea was never likely to displace the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Gary Neville from their starting berths but was a squad player with enough quality to deputise when others were injured or in need of rest.

At Liverpool, manager Jurgen Klopp has his own flexible friend in the form of James Milner; a winger by trade, converted into a central midfielder before metamorphosing recently into one of the finest left-backs in the Premier League.

An error-prone display in the opening game of the season by regular full-back Alberto Moreno confirmed to Klopp what most observers had concluded months earlier about the Spaniard – that he wasn’t particularly good.

Since that 4-3 win at Arsenal – in which Moreno conceded a comical penalty – Moreno has been dropped in favour of Anfield’s own Mr Dependable. In the five league matches that have followed, save for a 2-0 defeat at Burnley, Liverpool have drawn once and won thrice, culminating in last week’s 5-1 hammering of Hull City, a game in which Milner, 30, scored twice from the penalty spot.

A glowing statistic throughout a career that has taken in spells at Leeds United, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Manchester City as well as reaped 61 England caps, is that no side has ever lost a league match in which Milner has scored.

Forget the two goals against Hull, though. Milner’s influence was emphatic: determined in attack, dogged in defence.

His combination of guile and gumption, tenacity and temperament marked him out as a favourite under Manuel Pellegrini during City’s title-winning campaign in 2013/14. His versatility could be seminal if Liverpool are to end a 26-year weight for a championship.

sluckings@thenational.ae

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