Five years since Liverpool agreed the most priceless of free transfers

You might struggle to find an individual player in world football whose points of value feel quite as multi-faceted as those of James Philip Milner.

So much of that value, from his durability, to his tactical flexibility, feels somewhat intangible, priceless, unquantifiable. Either way, it keeps growing. It was there in spades even when the agreement was struck half a decade ago.

As such, the fact that the then 29-year-old was signed on a free transfer feels somehow appropriate — it is indeed tricky to put a price on the Yorkshireman.

The club was, of course, in a notably different place when this deal was struck. It was just 11 days after Steven Gerrard’s final game for the Reds — the humbling 6-1 defeat at Stoke City — and Brendan Rodgers was still the man at the helm.

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In many ways, that only served to make his arrival — and immediate appointment as vice-captain — feel additionally well-timed. A top up on both leadership and experience looked to be required, and Milner appeared to be someone who could provide both in droves. With Liverpool having finished the 2014/15 Premier League season in sixth position, joining from second-placed Manchester City, in itself, felt a considerable show of faith.

Now, 210 appearances, 26 goals, 39 assists, a Champions League, a UEFA Super Cup and a Club World Cup later, and the partnership is looking a thoroughly worthwhile one.

The fact that the Merseyside club’s trajectory has been a consistently upward one since the summer of 2015 is, of course, not just down to Milner. Yet it doesn’t feel a complete coincidence.

Things were looking considerably more uncertain prior to Jürgen Klopp’s arrival that October and, even after, 2015/16 performances continued to be consistently inconsistent. There was considerably more promise within them, though, following the German’s appointment — something showcased in the run to that season’s Europa League final.

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Milner notched two goals and three assists within that European campaign, and captained the side in its latter stages due to an injury sustained by Jordan Henderson in the first-leg of the Borussia Dortmund quarter-final.

The shift in big match performance levels and mentality may have been one primarily led by Klopp, but Milner so often felt like a key on-field component. He would, you’d imagine, have represented a standard-setter from the first day he walked through the Melwood doors under Rodgers. In Klopp, though, he arguably has a manager whose mindset and footballing philosophy aligns with the No.7’s style of play to an even greater extent.

There’s a widely circulated clip — filmed by a fan sitting a few yards behind the technical area in the old Main Stand — of Klopp passionately celebrating a Milner sliding challenge in the latter stages of the 3-0 semi-final second-leg victory over Villarreal that season. It was a moment that felt like it displayed the extent to which they were on the same page. The manager’s fist-pumps were matched by the crowd, while plenty of challenges by Milner and his teammates have received similar treatment since.

He and his numerous traits have, arguably, become one of the embodiments of Klopp’s Liverpool.

The fact he arrived in the same summer as the likes of Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi and Joe Gomez — themselves all key figures in the growth in recent years — also feels somewhat significant. You could do a lot worse than to find your feet in new surroundings alongside the ex-Leeds man.

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The on-field unselfishness he displayed in his second season at Anfield, a year spent as an auxiliary left-back, largely reflects the reasons he is also seen as such an important off-field figure. While he has since admitted that it wasn’t necessarily a prospect he was thrilled with when first informed of the plans by Klopp in the summer of 2016, he spoke in his book, Ask a Footballer, of how he still saw the potential benefits of adding another string to his bow.

Indeed, he fulfilled the role impressively throughout 2016/17, scoring several penalties in the process, to help Liverpool to that much sought-after fourth-placed finish.

The signing of Andy Robertson the following summer, coupled with an improvement in Alberto Moreno’s form during the early months of 2017/18, then enabled Milner to regain his status as a regular midfield option. His record tally of nine assists in a Champions League season in the run to the 2018 Kiev final confirmed that he encountered few issues in readjusting.

Alongside that, as the veteran foresaw, it does feel like that transition has helped him become even more well-rounded. He’s filled in in both full-back positions since, allowing both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to enjoy valuable rests as the demands and the importance of their own roles have grown. Those 2016/17 experiences were certainly put to excellent use when he was required to drop into left-back for the second-half of the Barcelona semi-final second-leg last year, following the Scot’s injury.

Even when playing in midfield, it feels as though the left-back experience has aided his ability to cover the space in the wide areas that can be left by either Robertson or Alexander-Arnold as they gallivant forward.

Whether contributing from the start or appearing from the bench, his nous and flexibility always feels like a source of reassurance. You need only look at how pleased supporters, players and coaches alike were in December, upon his signing of a two-year contract extension to the summer of 2022, to see how much he is appreciated.

It is the kind of influence that Klopp and and his staff will hope can rub off on the club in both its present and its future guises.

His willingness to be on the bench, during what was technically his winter break, to support Neil Critchley and his u23s as they beat Shrewsbury Town 1-0 in February’s FA Cup Fourth Round replay only enhanced the chances of that being the case.

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James Noble

Contributor. 20-year-old uni student studying sports journalism. Southern Red.

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