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James Milner’s Quick Rise To Left Back Prominence

Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

James Milner’s versatility has taken on a whole new meaning with Liverpool this season.

Allow me to set the record straight: James Milner is a midfielder.

The former Leeds United youngster once held the record as the youngest player to score in the Premier League. He burst onto the scene with his boyhood club, and moved on to Newcastle, Aston Villa, and Manchester City before joining Liverpool on a free transfer in the summer of 2015. 

From his Leeds debut in 2002, Milner has played all over the place, mainly in the midfield. However, his versatility has seen him play in the center, on the flanks, and occasionally as a striker or in defense during an injury crisis. Simply, Milner is a Swiss Army knife, capable of performing many tasks. Never has that fact been more true than this season.

Milner joined Liverpool because former manager Brendan Rodgers promised him a role in the center of the park, where Milner wants to play most. However, after Rodgers was sacked, Jurgen Klopp came in and utilized Milner on the flanks. He became an influential player, as Liverpool’s vice captain scored five goals while tacking on 11 assists in his first season on Merseyside, usually playing on the left or right side of a three-pronged attacking midfield.

Coming into this season, Milner’s role appeared as though it would diminish. The summer signing of Sadio Mane gave Liverpool a better wide attacking presence, and the additions of Georginio Wijnaldum and Marko Grujic looked sure to keep him out of central midfield. However, the inconsistency of Alberto Moreno opened up a new opportunity for Milner: left back.

It wasn’t a seamless transition, and it certainly wasn’t Milner’s first choice, but the renowned team player was always prepared to adapt, as he noted in an interview with The Liverpool Echo.

“He [Klopp] doesn’t owe me anything. I am a Liverpool player, he is the manager, he picks the best team to win and it is my job to make sure that what is best for Liverpool is me.”

The right-footed lifelong midfielder certainly isn’t your prototypical left fullback. However, he has made the grade so far this season, and with flying colors.

The 30-year-old, about to turn 31 in January, has become a key cog in Klopp’s Liverpool machine, and looks to keep the left back role for the foreseeable future. With Liverpool sitting second in the table heading into a big New Year’s Eve clash against Manchester City, Milner must continue his good form for Liverpool to be successful.

That form has resulted in five goals (all from penalties) and two assists, showing Milner’s contribution to Liverpool’s goal outburst this season. His attacking exploits are level with or better than some of the Premier League’s top left backs. 

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Milner tops some of the best in these attacking categories, even Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso, who actually has a more attacking role as a wing-back. (Via

Although Milner is often on his weaker left foot, and coming from a new position with new tactical responsibilities, it is not unusual that he has provided a fair bit of production on offense, given his past as a more attacking player.

However, what has been most astounding is Milner’s nearly perfect transition into a defensive player. Though he has deputized as a fullback (usually on the right) in the past, it was a tall task to take on a new position under a manager who, at the time of the switch, hadn’t even had a year to install his tactics at Liverpool.

Despite the difficulty of the transition, Milner has taken the duties with aplomb. Though he doesn’t top the charts in most defensive categories, his work defending is on par with the other top left backs in the Premier League.

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Milner’s defensive stats are not eye-popping, but the way they stack up against other Premier League left backs shows how solid he is doing in his new role. (Via

James Milner changed positions at the drop of a hat. It wasn’t as if he moved from central midfield to wide midfield, he moved from an attacker to a defender, and he did so with great success. He continues to impress in many ways, too.

He has blended his tenacious, hard-working nature with intelligent defending, and it was on full display in Liverpool’s win over Stoke City last weekend.

Milner’s day was so impressive, when Klopp brought on Moreno for the last 10 minutes, the Spaniard actually played on the left wing, as Milner remained in defense. That’s the kind of output Milner is providing: so good that the manager is playing his reserve left back in an attacking position. Now, the performances are starting to turn out more and more like the one against Stoke, and, should that continue, Liverpool will be successful. 

Sometimes versatility is a hindrance. It can prevent a player from finding a true role, and having success in a consistent way. However, with the way Liverpool is set up in midfield and attack, there doesn’t appear to be much room for Milner. In his case, versatility has been a lifeline.

And what a lifeline it has turned out to be.

Edited by Jeremy Losak, Julian Boireau.

Which club did James Milner leave to join Liverpool in 2015?
Created 12/30/16
  1. Newcastle United
  2. Manchester City
  3. Aston Villa
  4. Leeds United

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