One year more? Why Klopp would like ‘role model’ Milner to stay at Liverpool
If Fenway Sports Group were paying attention to Liverpool’s win over Newcastle, then surely James Milner can expect a phone call.
Age is just a number, and the 36-year-old proved that at St James’ Park on Saturday, delivering a timeless performance as Jurgen Klopp’s side kept the pressure on Manchester City at the top of the Premier League.
“Exceptional,” was Klopp’s verdict. There’s a reason he wants his vice-captain to stick around for at least another season, and that was it. In the heat of Tyneside, Milner did what he always does. He led by example, he bowed his head and he produced the goods.
It was his tackle, firm but fair on Fabian Schar, which led to the winning goal, superbly scored by Naby Keita. It was his pass, cut perfectly above the Newcastle defence, that should have led to another for Diogo Jota in the second half.
And when Jonjo Shelvey lined up a dangerous free-kick from 25 yards out, it was his header that deflected the ball to safety.
He spent a few seconds on the floor after that, but quickly got back to his feet, chasing and challenging, recycling possession and making sure his teammates didn’t dare go out.
Liverpool are by no means short of leaders, but Milner’s standards are the highest of all. Impress him, and you do something good. Fail, and you will know it.
It’s been 20 years since he made his professional debut, and his appetite for the game is as strong now as it was when he emerged as a teenager with boyhood club Leeds United.
That’s why he – and Liverpool – have a decision to make this summer. Do they stick or twist? One more year or a thank-you-for-the-memories?
Milner’s contract expires in June, and while there have been initial talks between the club and his representative, Matthew Buck, it’s fair to say there are currently doubts on both sides.
FSG appreciates the superb service he has given the club since his free transfer from Manchester City in 2015. He has made almost 300 appearances, in a range of different positions, and he has never let anyone down. His fingerprints are all over some of Liverpool’s greatest nights and all of Klopp’s greatest triumphs.
“Nothing we have achieved over the past few years would have happened without him,” the manager himself suggested at St James’ Park.
But time waits for no one. Milner may be as fit as ever – no player, either side, recorded a higher average speed in Saturday’s game – but he turns 37 in January and knows he is, at best, Klopp’s fifth-choice midfield option. With the likes of Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and future Fabio Carvalho all developing rapidly, opportunities could be even more limited next season.
Saturday was his 35th appearance of the season – he made 36 last season and 37 in 2019-20 – but only his eighth Premier League start, and his first since January 2. He can understand when he’s left out – and Liverpool’s form doesn’t help that much. pretend otherwise – but that doesn’t mean he’s happy with it or ready to accept it. It is this, rather than salary or length of contract, that will play the biggest role in his decision.
Klopp would certainly like him to stay and has made that point to Milner and Julian Ward, the new sporting director. Ward and Milner go back a long way, having worked together at Manchester City, and the smart money is on a deal done on a one-year extension.
It’s interesting to compare and contrast Milner’s situation to that of Fernandinho, another veteran midfielder out of contract this summer.
The Manchester City captain appeared to surprise his manager, Pep Guardiola, when he announced in a recent Champions League press conference his intention to return to Brazil.
“I didn’t know,” Guardiola replied, adding that “I understand players want to play…I would like to be with him [longer].”
Like Milner at Liverpool, Fernandinho is a key figure for City, a standard-bearer for the team and a vocal presence in the dressing room. Like Milner, he has held various positions, stepping in and stepping up, and like Milner, he will be hard to replace, if and when he does eventually leave.
Liverpool have discovered in recent years with Dejan Lovren, Gini Wijnaldum and, in particular, Adam Lallana, that often it is the person, the character, that is missing as much as the player. Milner most certainly falls into this category. After all, few players have a door named after them on the training ground.
“He sets the standard, in a way few people can set standards,” Klopp said on Saturday. “He’s a role model, and incredibly important to us.”
Newcastle only served to underline this fact. And if the manager gets his wish, Milner’s influence at Anfield will continue for quite a while.