“Trent! Get on that fucking ball, you!”
That was James Milner’s gentle message to Trent Alexander-Arnold as Liverpool trailed 1-0 to Aston Villa at Anfield on Saturday. It was not sent in a bottle but could have been heard down the road in Bootle.
Four minutes later, Milner’s time on the bench was up. He was on the pitch, conveying similarly expletive-laden messages in closer proximity to their recipients.
Milner did not want his final game at Anfield to be a leaving-do. He wanted Liverpool to win, and the focus to be nowhere near him.
When he was first sent to warm up alongside Roberto Firmino – who did have a full-blown leaving-do on Sunday – during the first half, that became clear. Milner returned the raucous applause like a sideway pass. He wanted to shift that ball on.
The 37-year-old wanted to do zig-zagging runs and hamstring stretches. He wanted to avoid the artificial grass that surrounds the Anfield turf because even when he is on the sidelines, he is somehow on the pitch. Any chance he got to sprint on the proper stuff, he took.
Liverpool cancelled out Villa’s lead through Cody Gakpo 10 minutes into the second half. Or so we thought. About 30 seconds later Milner, still warming up, whistled with uncle-like approval in the direction of nobody in particular. The goal was then ruled out and Milner turned to Firmino and their fellow replacement Diogo Jota. His hand signals suggested he was telling them to pass with speed and make nifty runs into the box once they got on.
When Firmino did score the equaliser (his final Anfield goal) in the 89th minute having done just that, Milner did not celebrate. His pass was one in the sequence that helped create the opportunity for the Brazilian. But Milner had no time for an after-party. He trudged back into his own half and got on with business.
He wanted Alexander-Arnold to get on the fucking ball, he wanted Firmino or Jota, or anyone in red, to score a stoppage-time winner. When the whistle went, he just wanted to leave quietly, just as he had planned to do last season until a one-year extension to his contract was offered. Before that proposal was made, Milner was planning to let Divock Origi have his moment in the final game of the campaign. Twelve months on, he wanted to do the same with Firmino, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita.
But he could never leave like that. His contribution during eight years wearing the Liverpool shirt had been far too great for the club and fans to have allowed it.
The Kop piped up as he came out of the tunnel into a guard of honour. Milner’s 331 appearances and 206 wins warranted a theme tune he never got, so “There’s only one James Milner!” was a quick-thinking tribute. Not the most original, but perhaps the most fitting.
Sir Kenny Dalglish, who laced the Liverpool No 7 shirt with so much weight and meaning during his playing days, was waiting to congratulate a man who did exactly the same. After photographs with Dalglish, chief executive officer Billy Hogan and two big framed mementoes of his Anfield career, Milner walked right into a Jurgen Klopp hug.
The manager did not want this to be Milner’s last home game for the club. Milner felt the same.
But the call from Boston, where Liverpool’s owners and ultimate financial decision-makers Fenway Sports Group are based, never came. And so, at age 37, he will move on after Sunday’s final game of the season away to already-relegated Southampton, departing as probably the greatest free-transfer signing in Liverpool’s history.
He joined from Manchester City, where he helped win two Premier League titles in his five years, on a promise from then-manager Brendan Rodgers he would play in central midfield; when Klopp took over from Rodgers four months later, the German learnt he had inherited a unique, utility-belt of a player. And the rest, really, was history.
These, then, are the seven faces of James Milner — Liverpool’s ‘Mr Everything’.
It was before a Europa League last-16 second leg away to Manchester United in March 2016 that Klopp approached Milner about changing his midfield role.
Alberto Moreno had picked up an injury and Klopp asked whether he preferred to play at left-back or right-back. Milner, not keen on either, eventually chose the left side to enable Nathaniel Clyne to keep his place on the right. The game ended 1-1 with Philippe Coutinho’s goal ensuring Liverpool would reach the quarter-finals (en route to the final, where they lost to Europa League black-belts Sevilla).
Milner did not start another game at full-back during that first season under Klopp but, on tour in the US the next summer, the manager asked him to stay behind after a team meeting and explained he wanted to play him left-back in the coming campaign. Milner was far from thrilled. But, ever the professional, he agreed and gave it his all in his new role.
In the six years since 2016-17, Milner has spent almost half his Premier League minutes playing one full-back spot or the other, 32 per cent on the left and 12 per cent on the right.
And as we can see, Milner has been heavily trusted in the Klopp era in general. He is in the top 10 Liverpool players for minutes played since 2015-16, when Klopp replaced Rodgers in the October of that season.
Of those 18,899 minutes, Milner has touched the ball 18,911 times. And it is no surprise to see his touches happened all over the pitch.
The true essence of his work rate is best summed up by all those red dots – and by one of them in particular.
See the one nearest Liverpool’s goal-line?
That was a clearance that stopped a certain Ryan Fraser goal for Bournemouth. The game concerned eventually ended 2-1 to Liverpool — a win that pulled them closer to ending the club’s 30-year wait for a league title.
Milner to the rescue! 🙏
Back in the starting line-up in the league for the first time in two months, James Milner prevents the Bournemouth equaliser! pic.twitter.com/N9kCgKNcur
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) March 7, 2020
As the map also shows, Milner’s touches have happened all over the pitch, but he has rarely carried the ball into the opposition box. With one notable exception…
Before the days of Mohamed Salah as Liverpool’s chosen penalty-taker, Milner had the job… and he never missed the target once. He scored 19 and had two saved, both in 2017, with the majority of them struck into the bottom corners of the net.
Perhaps his most memorable penalty was the one he scored with the last kick of the game at home to Leicester City in October 2019.
Liverpool went on to win the Premier League comfortably, but it was a campaign that had its momentum hole-punched by crucial moments such as Milner’s late winner that day at Anfield.
To add to his 19 penalties, he also scored seven times from open play, many of them coming from range.
Opta’s definition of a winning goal is a goal that puts a team’s score to one above their opponent’s final score. Milner has eight of them in his eight years at Anfield.
Winning assists are measured in the same way and Milner has 10 of those, with the most famous of them being for Dejan Lovren in one of Liverpool’s formative nights under Klopp – a 4-3 comeback win over Borussia Dortmund that booted the manager’s former team out of the Europa League quarter-finals in 2016.
It was in the Champions League, though, where Milner’s love of an assist really shone through.
In 2017-18, he had nine assists in 11 European appearances as Liverpool reached the final — no player has recorded more in one season.
Enjoy every one of James Milner’s record-breaking assists in this season’s Champions League campaign 🤝
9️⃣ in total, more than any single player has managed in one season…
James Milner, king of the Champions League assist 👑🅰️ pic.twitter.com/RwDO1hko1u
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 2, 2018
As for assists in general, Milner provided 45 in total for Liverpool, with 33 of those arriving in open play.
The diagram below highlights his threat from corners, particularly those outswingers played from the right-hand side, but there is no shortage of passes from deep that teed up team-mates.
One of Milner’s most impressive records is that his team has never lost a Premier League game in which he has scored. Of the games that have delivered his 55 goals (54 in total), he has won 43 and drawn 11. It’s a record bettered only by Gabriel Jesus, who has scored in 55 games (68 goals) and won 50 of them with Manchester City and now Arsenal.
Milner does not like to lose. That is clear. And if he is coming on as a substitute then he is going to shore things up and see out the game. He’s a closer, to borrow a term from baseball, and actually holds the club record for the most appearances from off the bench (130, so far).
It is not a record Milner will actively welcome, though. In his Ask A Footballer book from 2019, he says being a substitute is hard to take. “I don’t know if there are players who are happy just to be on the bench, but I’ve never been one of those,” he wrote.
Still, that’s not to take away from Milner’s savviness when coming on and helping to see games out – it is a quality that has proved invaluable over his years at Anfield.
It is no surprise to learn the majority of Milner’s Premier League bookings as a Liverpool player have been picked up in the second halves of games. He is disruptive and a master of the tactical foul.
Of his 37 Liverpool bookings in the league, 35 have been for fouls (he also has one for dissent and another for handball) but what is most striking is that 19 of his cautions have come in the final half-hour of matches, and 12 of them in the final 14 minutes.
Nobody at Anfield is complaining, though. Some of Milner’s best moments have come in the tackle: take, for example, his shutdown of Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar in a Champions League group game at Anfield in 2018. Milner scored a penalty in the game (a 3-2 home win) but the moment he hoofed the ball from under Neymar and flung him out of play is remembered far more fondly.
From the video, it appears as if Milner is playing right-back. In fact, he started on the left of midfield that night but drifted over to the right to introduce himself to Neymar.
Neymar meet Milner, Milner meet Neymar 💪😂 pic.twitter.com/UEz1794kOF
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) September 19, 2018
Lionel Messi was also on the end of one of Milner’s sideline tackles during the first leg of that Champions League semi-final in 2019. With the ball already out of reach, Milner did the only thing he could and barged Messi out of play. The Argentinian did not respond kindly, issuing a verbal volley in Spanish – perhaps not realising that the Yorkshireman could understand every word.
“He called me the (Spanish) word for donkey, but it also translates to kicking people,” Milner recalled.”We’re going up the tunnel and he’s going mad at half-time saying, ‘(it was) just because I ‘megged you’.
“I feel like players like that have their own way and, (if you) give them too much respect, they are going to run the game. Sometimes you have to let them know you’re there and knock them out their stride.”
It became a running joke at Liverpool’s training ground that, no matter his passing years, Milner would always win the bleep and lactate tests when the squad returned for pre-season training.
“He’s an elite, perfect, professional footballer,” said Trent Alexander-Arnold, when asked about Milner ahead of the 2019 Champions League final. “He is completely dedicated to his craft. He never steps out of line in any way. He’s always focused, always putting his body on the line for the team.
“It’s unbelievable to see his fitness and energy levels. It’s testament to how well he’s looked after himself and how professional he’s been throughout his career.”
Milner, whose career began when not every Premier League dressing room was a bastion of professionalism, is also a teetotaller.
“I lost count of the amount of times people said, ‘Oh, just have one,’ or ‘Can I be there when you have your first drink?’ They would probably have regretted being there, I could have turned pretty ruthless,” he once told The Guardian.
“You are just learning at that age and thinking: ‘What can I do to be the best? Alcohol is not the best thing for you? Right, I won’t do that.’”
And in his final days of training with Liverpool this week, he will surely continue to be at the front of the running group, setting the pace.
Milner has fulfilled several leadership roles at Liverpool, including being a vice-captain and occasional skipper, but the standards he set, and demanded of others, were not linked to the armband he was wearing by the end of the Villa game on Saturday.
Alexander-Arnold has spoken of Milner being “intimidating” for young players when they first enter the senior dressing room at Liverpool. But that toughness flowed from an expectation that everyone playing for the club at that level should meet a high bar.
Former Liverpool under-23s manager Neil Critchley put a strong emphasis on first impressions. Whenever his youth players were called up to senior training, it was important to make a good impression — and not just on Klopp.
“We used to speak to our players about not failing your audition,” Critchley tells The Athletic. “You don’t want to train with the first team for the first time and make a bad impression. And not only are you trying to pass that test with the manager and the staff, but with the players too.
“Our players had to pass ‘The Milner and (Jordan) Henderson Test’, if you like. They both came through academy systems (at Leeds and Sunderland respectively) to play with the pros. They want to know about your character, whether they can trust you, whether you’re going to fit into the group. They test you, in a good way.”
When Klopp told his players to recharge during a winter break in February 2020, many went away on holiday. But Milner stayed behind. In a strange twist of scheduling, Liverpool had an FA Cup replay in that period against Shrewsbury Town of the English third tier, with the club deciding to field Critchley’s youth side in their absence.
Milner, as the sole senior player still on Merseyside, duly helped out. He asked to train with the squad in the days leading up to the game, which Liverpool won 1-0.
“James Milner, being James Milner, didn’t go away because he wanted to get back fit as soon as possible,” Critchley said. “He trained with us because we were preparing for the game and he used that as a chance to get fit. I’m pretty sure he was pushing to play, but it came too soon for him.
“His experience and voice in training leading into that game was really important. Before the game, he actually came up to me and asked whether he could come and be in the dressing room and talk to the players. It was very respectful of him. He didn’t need to do that, because it was his dressing room more than ours. We were just loaning it for the night. The fact he asked shows you the mark of the man.”
Milner also popped his head in at half-time and throughout the game was shouting encouragement from his seat behind the dugout.
“Sometimes, the best coaching isn’t always from the coaches,” Critchley says, thinking back to Milner’s role that week. “It’s from players, usually senior ones, and they don’t get any better than James Milner.”
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)
Subscribe to The Athletic for in-depth coverage of your favorite players, teams, leagues and clubs. Try a week on us.
Caoimhe O’Neill is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Liverpool. Before joining The Athletic she worked as a Senior Football Writer at the Liverpool Echo. She’s a graduate of the University of Liverpool. Follow Caoimhe on Twitter @CaoimheSport