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James Milner: Why the veteran midfielder is key to Liverpool's title hopes

When Liverpool bolstered their midfield with the signings of Naby Keita and Fabinho in the summer, many expected James Milner would be relegated to the bench this season.

But courtesy of his scintillating form, the 32-year-old's been an absolutely integral component towards Liverpool's brilliant start to the 2018/2019 campaign.

Durable, strong and unbelievably fit, the Englishman's been a real leader so far, with his performances from midfield setting a perfect example for his teammates to follow.

Possessing an insatiable appetite for work, Milner's relentless pressing and counterpressing - two aspects Klopp's sides are renowned for - have been of the highest order. Always alert and ready to pounce, the former Manchester City man times, angles and directs his harrying efforts with precision.

As soon as a pressing trigger presents itself, such as an opponent receiving a poor pass, obtaining possession in an open body posture or with their back to goal, Milner springs into action.

Indeed, aside from heaping pressure on his opponent, which subsequently forces his targets into playing many low percentage passes or into turning the ball over, the way he's used his cover shadow to block one or multiple passing lanes behind him has been equally impressive.

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IMAGE 1: Milner's well angled press using cover shadow to block pass routes

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IMAGE 2: Milner's effective press blocking multiple pass lanes

He’s been vital in allowing the Reds to regain possession immediately after they lose it, so they can attack again against usually unset defensive units, who are preparing for a counter of their own.

Observing how potent he is in such situations and how Klopp identifies counter-pressing as one of his primary sources of chance creation, Milner's menace in recovering possession will delight his coach.

When it comes to applying his challenges, Milner, who never takes a backward step, has been sure to impose himself on his foes with customary vigour and physicality - as Neymar found out earlier this season. Indeed, there's certainly been no easy touches for any adversaries he's earmarked.

Milner on Rose

He's also seamlessly alternated between man marking and zonal marking, where his judgement and decision making serve him nicely either in a high or mid-block.

Venturing onto his offensive contribution and Milner's acquitted himself very proficiently here too. Passing the ball competently and with conviction, his distribution has seen him confidently construct many incisive moves.

While this isn't the most fearsome weapon in his armoury, the ability to play line-breaking passes, partake in slick combination play or dependably hit more reserved passes for ball retention purposes have been impressive.

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IMAGE 3: Milner's incisive pass into Salah

A willing dribbler to boot, Milner relishes the chance to surge upfield with the ball at his feet, something that neatly supplements Liverpool's immensely dangerous frontline.

Arguably, however, his impact has been most keenly felt through his intelligent off the ball movement, for this constantly creates openings for his colleagues to exploit.

So hard to track due to how he smartly blends sheer running power, cunning blindside movements and crafty rotations with his fellow midfielders and attackers, this area of his game has given Liverpool another dimension.

As seen in the images below, whether finding space in between the lines, pinpointing gaps in opposing backlines, interchanging with his mates or dropping into the half-spaces away from the congested middle, he's been a real force to be reckoned with.

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IMAGE 4: Milner's penetrative run from deep

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IMAGE 5: Milner and Mane rotation

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IMAGE 6: Milner in position to embark on blindside run in behind

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IMAGE 7: Milner receives between lines in ideal forward-facing posture

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IMAGE 8: Milner receiving in left half-space away from congested centre

By the numbers, his 4.6 interceptions per 90, 2.4 tackles p90, 3.7 ball recoveries in the opposition half p90, 2.3 dribbles p90, 1.67 shot assists p90, 1.7 key passes p90 and 8.43 completed passes into the final third p90 duly illustrate his tremendous worth.

In the form of his life, the multidimensional Milner has unsurprisingly drawn plenty of praise from all corners, but Klopp's gleaming words certainly sum him up best.

"James is the best example for them (the squad). He is a very energetic boy and likes to cover big distances. He can play football, and that makes him a pretty valuable player.

“It’s not just this season, last year he had most assists in CL (Champions League). Only in football it sounds like 32 was a massive age. In all other parts of life you are still young, and he is still young. He is a top professional and his body gives him a chance to do so (play).”

Milner celebrates

Unwaveringly determined and committed to his craft, Milner's become rather accustomed to proving his doubters wrong throughout his career.

And this is precisely what he's done this season for the Reds, as their unexpected hero looks set to be an instrumental figure on their quest to end their 29-year wait for a Premier League title.

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