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26th Sep 2016

How Jurgen Klopp proved the rest of us wrong with James Milner’s reinvention

Pretty much everyone else in football disagreed - but he was convinced

Tony Barrett

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Left back, a position that Liverpool have struggled with for a quarter of a century, was there to be exploited by their opponents again. The transfer window closed without one being signed and all that remained were Alberto Moreno, out of favour and his critics would argue out of his depth, and James Milner.

On top of that, not only is Milner not a left back, he had made it quite clear that he would prefer not to play there. For some reason, Jurgen Klopp looked at all the evidence in front of him and convinced himself that he could make this work.

Pretty much everyone else in football disagreed, predicting such folly would be exposed within weeks, but the Liverpool manager was adamant that the options at his disposal were good enough, not just to get by, but to thrive.

It is still early days and much could still go wrong but the signs are that Klopp was right and the rest of us were wrong. Whatever the German phrase is for eating humble pie, he would be entitled to use it at his next press conference.

What it all boils down to is Klopp basically backed Milner’s personality and his talent. The former would be crucial in terms of his willingness to put his own misgivings to one side and giving the position a go, the latter would determine how successful he would be in his new role.

On both counts, Milner has repaid the faith that his manager has shown in him. As a character, the 30-year-old fits into the mould of great Liverpool players of years gone by. Professional to his very core, resolute, willing and unflappable, Milner also has the kind of game intelligence that managers love.

BASEL, SWITZERLAND - MAY 17: Jurgen Klopp, manager of Liverpool talks to James Milner during a Liverpool training session on the eve of the UEFA Europa League Final against Sevilla at St. Jakob-Park on May 17, 2016 in Basel, Switzerland. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Put him in the team in pretty much any position and he won’t just do a job, he will do a good one. As a player, his qualities remain strangely underrated, a situation that becomes increasingly perverse as his career enters its latter stages.

Since the turn of the year, there is a strong argument that he has been Liverpool’s best and most consistent performer. His 16 assists last season underlined his creativity and that quality remains despite him now operating in a deeper role with his perceptive passing regularly opening up space for those in front of him, particularly Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino.

On Saturday, Milner dominated his flank, setting the tone early on with an outstanding recovery tackle and a jinking run to the byline and went on to score two typically well-taken penalties as Liverpool routed Hull City at Anfield. With him at left back, Liverpool basically have an extra midfielder on the pitch when they are in possession and that is one of the reasons why they are not giving opponents “a chance to breathe,” as Curtis Davies put it afterwards.

Milner isn’t just making sense of playing left back, he is adding a new dimension to it and while he would undoubtedly prefer to go back into midfield, if he continues the season in the manner that he has started it Klopp will have no option but to leave him where he is.

Koeman’s irritation at the Barkley scrutiny is understandable – but so too is the focus

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 17: Ronald Koeman, Manager of Everton before kick off during the Premier League match between Everton and Middlesbrough at Goodison Park on September 17, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)(Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

It had been coming. Having constantly faced understandable questions about Ross Barkley’s form since taking over as Everton manager, there was always going to be a breaking point for Ronald Koeman and it arrived on Saturday.

Barkley had once again underwhelmed, as has been the case repeatedly during this calendar year, and the comparison with the on-loan Jack Wilshere had been particularly unflattering.

Wilshere, all intricate passes and intelligent use of the ball, had made Barkley look pedestrian and lacking in nous. The contrast between the two was glaring and was one of several key factors in Bournemouth bringing Everton’s unbeaten start  to an end.

Inevitably, Koeman was asked about Barkley’s performance but this time he was not going to offer a soundbite. There would be no jab to the midfielder’s ribs to try and provoke a reaction or no arm around the shoulder to try and bring him out of his shell.

The Everton manager has reached the stage when focussing on one under-performing individual starts to feel detrimental to what he is trying to achieve with the collective.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Ronald Koeman, Manager of Everton gives Ross Barkley of Everton instructions during the Premier League match between Everton and Tottenham Hotspur at Goodison Park on August 13, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)

“I don’t answer about that question,” Koeman said. “Why do I need to explain or tell always about just one of my players? You don’t ask me about Seamus Coleman, you don’t ask me about anyone else. What I don’t like is that every game I have to the explain what was the performance of Barkley. Every week I get that type of question.”

The parallels with Jose Mourinho’s relationship with Wayne Rooney at Manchester United are clear. In both cases, manager wants the player to deliver and gives him ample opportunity to do so but the longer the situation drags on without significant improvement, the more it becomes a distraction and the more likely it is that taking the player out of the team is the best solution for everyone.

That will not stop the questions, of course. Barkley’s talent has been vaunted for so long and so many have hailed him as English football’s next great thing that he will not be allowed to simply disappear from view.

None of this is Barkley’s fault; he didn’t ask for such a billing and nor has he ever shouted the odds about what he can achieve in the game.

But having been blessed/cursed with such exalted status his manager is damned to face questions about him whether he plays or doesn’t play and whether he performs well or performs badly.

In the English game, it’s often the hype, rather than the hope, that kills you. 

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