'The more things change, the more they stay the same' is a turn of phrase coined by 19th-century French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. In all probability, he wasn't referring directly to James Milner and the current Liverpool team but he might as well have been.
Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Naby Keita and Adam Lallana were among the options available to Jürgen Klopp to face Leicester at the weekend. So few expected Milner, 33 into the final year of his deal and having started just four matches previously, to be drafted into the starting XI.
And when he was, there were some grumbles. His performance from the start against Napoli had underwhelmed. Had that display in Italy been the last of Liverpool's Mr Reliable starting in midfield, as he instead went on to play out the final months on his deal as a solid backup, a large section of the fanbase would have been unbothered.
Klopp, however, knew better.
Leicester at home, at the end of a gruelling run of fixtures, was never going to be pretty. It wasn't the game to restore Naby Keita to first-team status, nor was it the game to slot Oxlade-Chamberlain back in and risk throwing the balance off.
It needed a bit of grit and fighting spirit in the engine room to negate a relentlessly energetic and creatively fearsome midfield that has spent the season so far punching above its weight, and delivering its fair share of knockout blows.
Milner, then, joined Fabinho and Wijnaldum in the supporting cast for the front three. And though the win took its time coming, it was the elder statesman of the trio that conjured the two moments Liverpool needed to extend their lead at the top to eight points.
First, there was the audacious through ball that put Sadio Mané clear to curl in the opener in front of the Kop. Surgically precise and weighted to the sort of perfection Milner demands of himself week in week out, it was just what his side needed in the throes of a performance that lacked their usual attacking efficiency.
And then, at the death, there was another quintessentially Milner moment. James Maddison had brought the visitors level, but 15 minutes later - deep into stoppage time - the referee pointed to the spot for a foul on Mané.
With minimal fuss and a straight, three-step run-up, Milner puffed out his chest and stroked the ball in the opposite direction from the diving Kasper Schmeichel, celebrating with an ironic fold of the arms and an uninterested expression on his face that underlined and poked fun at his own 'boring' reputation.
You can't imagine there is another man in the world the Liverpool players would have wanted taking that spot-kick. The fact he has now taken 33 penalties in his career and scored 28 of them is testament to his iron-forged mentality; he doesn't feel pressure, at least not in the way a human being normally does.
And that's exactly why he remains an intrinsically important part of this Liverpool side. Perhaps more so than ever, given they now have a lead to defend for 30 games as they hunt down a first-ever Premier League title.
While his performances on the pitch can still be decisive, there is also his influence over the dressing room to consider. There's only so much a writer can tell you about that, granted, but Klopp himself said back in May that his pre-match team meetings 'wouldn't work' without Milner's motivational presence.
“He plays golf close to a professional level, whatever he is doing, it’s on a really high level," Klopp said, as quoted by talkSPORT. “He can be quite intense because he’s demanding. But he’s a proper leader.
“My meetings, maybe I’m not bad, but without Milly before the game in the dressing room, I don’t think it would work.”
It's perhaps just as well, then, that Klopp is optimistic over the prospect of tying Milner down for another year or two. Though you may not see it on the park every week, the Reds vice-captain is a key part of the squad, and a gem that some among the fanbase won't know they had until he is gone.
In name, he might not be as exciting to some as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Naby Keita, nor is he likely to hit the goal or assist numbers either player would with a full season of football under their respective belts. But his huge influence, relentless work-rate and unshakeable winning mentality is something that no amount of trickery in the attacking third could compensate for. And as Saturday showed, he is a long way from over the hill.
He doesn't think long-term and the prospect of a new deal isn't even likely to weigh on his thoughts just yet. We're thinking about James Milner, but James Milner is probably just focused on Old Trafford in two weeks' time.
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Source : 90min