There are two defining features of James Milner, Robot Warrior’s tenure at Liverpool. The first is his versatility, since he’s played in all three midfielder slots, in both fullback slots, and even spent a couple games at winger, the role that began his career, ‘lo almost 20 years ago. The second is determination. When Millie is on the pitch, he’s going to get the ball and probably do so by barging aside three people and going through the last one. He’s also probably going to earn a yellow card by playing the midfield destroyer role when we need to assert control and simply ride out the clock in a match in which we have a lead. That’s been more common from him of late because of the depth which has been created by Jürgen Klopp and Michael Edwards and FSG. But today was an uncommon start in the Premier League for him, which meant that we were intent on assuming control from the opening kick, as well as trying to give breathers to some of the regulars in the middle third. Because Millie is a man of his word, we promptly took control after some decent exchanges in the first 10 minutes and basically didn’t look back. When you outshoot your opponent, 24-4, and have 6 corners to their 0, you can assume that the game was pretty well in hand, even if the scoreline might indicate otherwise. And that’s because Milner was determined to make it so and did so to the tune of a MotM performance, his first for us in I honestly don’t know how long.
But it’s that kind of determination that’s going to be necessary to fulfill the promise of this season. Clearly, we can’t lose another game if we’re going to achieve our goals and those goals still have long odds. We made five changes from the game on Wednesday against Villareal. They made nine(!) in their match today against La Liga bottom-dwellers Alavés, so we know what we’re in for on Tuesday, as their season now rides on one competition only. The FA Cup (something Millie has never won in his long career) is down to one match against Chelsea; a side we’ve only been able to get draws with this season, with the League Cup final going to penalties (Panenka!) And the league is a race to the death. The first team that trips likely loses. So, it’s do-or-die time and there’s almost no one better to have on the field and on your bench than the man whose wealth of experience and endless energy (still winning the squad endurance tests at 36!) puts him in the running alongside Joel Matip as the best free transfer this club has ever had.
But, of course, football is a team sport, yo, and the rest of the team played really well, even if we underperformed the xG something serious. Joe Gomez, despite limited time this season, has always made that time count every time he appears and he had a strong argument for being the best player on the pitch today. Similarly, Naby Keita was right alongside Millie in that midfield and controlled the game for the full 90, on top of the calm and measured approach that led to the winning goal. And we can’t count out the tireless activity of one Andrew Robertson, Esq., who made a great tackle on the edge of the box in the 93rd minute, only to tear upfield at full speed, looking to start another attack for the insurance goal. Made the best of his opportunities, controlled the game, tireless activity… All of that adds up to James Milner, Robot Warrior, ladies and gentlemen. You could do a lot worse than say that this squad has been molded in the image and performance of its oldest player, whom Jürgen, despite struggling to find playing time for everyone (Takumi Minamino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were, once again, left off the gameday squad) has stated that he’d love for Millie to sign for another year this summer and play for us to the age of 37. He’s been here longer, with more appearances and more goals than for any other club he’s played for, which included today’s opponents. That’s emblematic of his determination at this stage of his career. He wants more. We want more. Now’s the time to go and get it.
Newcastle United 0 – 1 Liverpool
As I said: we underperformed the xG. Jomez’s perfect square-in to Sadio Mané in the second half is probably the one that makes one cringe the most. But Sadio has been in brilliant form and we still won the match so, whatevs. Eddie Howe has certainly done a remarkable job with Saudi PIFC and one of the best ideas that he had was converting Joelinton to more of an 8, so that he has more access to the ball, rather than having to wait to have it fed to him. In all honesty, he seems to even be playing more of a #10 role in a 4-3-3, which is weird, but seems to be effective, so points to Howe. But the Maggies’ most prominent threats are Allan Saint-Maximin and January arrival, Bruno Guimarães; both of whom were kept extremely quiet throughout the day. I’d be surprised to discover that the latter had more than a dozen touches of the ball, honestly. Along with all those lauded above, Captain Jordan Henderson once again put in an excellent shift at the 6, not only snuffing out opposing attempts to come through the middle third, but also keeping play moving by sending the ball right back to their defensive zone on a regular basis. Depth! On the note of exceptional performances, it’s also probably decent to argue that the MotM could’ve gone to our offside trap, given the Maggies’ 9(!) offside flags today. But, yeah, let’s talk about those actual players.
This is the point on Reddit when people would post: “Good bot.” That’s a crushing performance and creates the perfect Nelson Muntz moment to all of those so-called Reds fans that were complaining about his selection before the match started. It’s also prima facie evidence that what he was doing out there involved more than the stereotypical “English grit.” In other words, he’s still a really good player. Besides, usually when I think of “grit”, I think of the resident Scotsman.
And, again, you still really can’t assess Robbo’s performance by just looking at the numbers. I’m not even sure that “1/2 tackles” listing is accurate but, even if it is, that one tackle was not only amazing but emblematic of what he was doing all game and does in almost every game. This is why Kostas Tsimikas, whom would be a starter for almost any other side in the Premier League, sits on the bench. Speaking of which…
There are a number of players on the squad to feel sorry for in terms of lack of playing time, but none moreso than Joe. As Jim Proudfoot was pointing out during the match, in the title-winning season and in the first three months of last season, it seemed to be nailed on that Joe was the partner for Virgil Van Dijk at centerback. Then, disaster struck for both Joe and Virg, and now that we picked up Ibrahima Konaté and Joel has been able to be rotated regularly to keep him fit, Joe is the even man out (because we have four regular CBs…) With Virg having returned to being the rock that he is, it’s a question of who lines up alongside him and both Ibra and Joel have been playing spectacularly this season, so Joe has been reduced to subbing in for Trent. Of course, every time he does that, he plays brilliantly, which is yet another marker of the depth that we have and the difficulty of keeping everyone happy. Wait… Did I say ‘happy’?
It seems mildly incongruous to keep placing Luís Diaz in these write-ups when he hasn’t produced like a Mo Salah or a Sadio. But he’s got the Robbo thing going on, in that he’s so good in every match that he almost demands to be called out for what he does. Just the enormous threat that he creates on the left side and the constant pressure that he applies changes matches. I mentioned the best free transfers above, but Luís is rapidly climbing the ladder in terms of best January transfers alongside colossi like Virg and Daniel Sturridge, even with the short time he’s been here, which gives us the opportunity to end on a time-contrasting but still positive note.
This is the best period of play for Naby since he’s been here, not least because it’s the longest sustained period of play. As most of the Nabyheads on Twitter will gladly tell you, “quality will out.” It’s taken much longer than any of us would’ve liked to reach this point, but we’ve finally arrived in a zone where it’s safe to feel relatively certain that Naby is going to produce whenever he’s on the pitch. Prior to this season, I was only thinking about what kind of value we could recoup in moving him on. Now, I think it’s OK to consider him an important cog in the machine. You could see how excited Sadio was after the match for Naby to have scored the winner and that excitement should be shared by everyone else. Yes, anything can change at a moment’s notice, but as with Joel, I think the regular rotation will keep our Guinean midfielder functioning and hopefully reaching the levels that he sustained at RB Leipzig.
Recordwatch. We’ve now set a club record for wins in all competitions in a season (42; it was more difficult to reach those heights in the glory days of the 70s and 80s because the European Cup had no group stages and originally only the winners of a domestic league participated.) Alisson Becker and Liverpool have now kept 21 clean sheets in the PL, only one short of the club record of 22 from the 2005-06 season. It’s also the most clean sheets of any keeper in Europe and our 31 (in 56 games) is the most of any club in Europe, as well. So, y’know, business as usual.
Off to Spain on Tuesday because somehow the TV moneys have dictated that not only should we play on the previous Wednesday and have less time than the other semifinal, but also get the early kickoff on the intervening Saturday. Great. After that, we welcome(?) Spurs and ever-peripatetic manager Antonio Conté to Anfield who, in true Spurs fashion (“Lads…”), is rumored to be lighting out for PSG at the end of the season. Drama. Meanwhile, let’s sail off in the glow of Virg doing Virg things, just because he can: