James Milner plays Mr Dependable in Liverpool’s new era of unflappability

Manchester City's Raheem Sterling clashes with Liverpool's James Milner

Liverpool have so many attacking players of pace and quality they can make light of the absence of Philippe Coutinho and leave Daniel Sturridge on the bench for long periods.

They would probably find it hard to be as effective without James Milner, though. The converted full-back is, as his spoof Twitter persona suggests, Mr Dependable. Now operating in a new position at the fifth Premier League club of his remarkable career, Milner will not have surprised anyone at the club he left to join Liverpool.

The former Manchester City player is so much more than a fill-in at full-back. Tasked with keeping Raheem Sterling quiet in this game, no easy job even if the winger rarely shines against his old side, Milner still found time to get up in support of the players ahead of him and distribute the ball with his usual reliability.

Milner’s unflappability under pressure set the tone for Liverpool’s early breakthrough, when they almost nonchalantly took the lead with their first attack of the game. Pep Guardiola cannot say he was not warned. The City manager had been waxing lyrical beforehand about Liverpool’s capacity for lightning strikes, pointing out that they were capable of creating danger in just three or four seconds, and after lulling their rivals into a false sense of security in the opening minutes that is exactly what they did. City were beginning to enjoy playing the game in Liverpool’s half when they were caught cold. Yaya Touré and his team-mates made a mess of a free-kick to surrender possession and from the moment the ball was effortlessly and elegantly transferred to Adam Lallana on the left wing, City were passive observers of a clinical strike. Of course Lallana found room to beat Pablo Zabaleta. Of course the cross was perfect, and of course Georginio Wijnaldum provided an authoritative finish with the sort of header that Claudio Bravo was never going to reach.

City had begun the game looking as if they intended to put pressure on Milner at left-back, inviting Sterling and Kevin de Bruyne to take it in turns to see if they could spot any defensive weaknesses. Milner not only held out, within minutes of Liverpool going in front he too was skipping past Zabaleta to send over a cross from the left, and if Roberto Firmino had been able to take better advantage of his pinpoint pass through the heart of the City defence the home side would have been two up within half an hour. Lallana was the player causing the City backline most problems in the first half, yet Milner was usually at his shoulder, ready to occupy a defender with a run or provide an option with a short pass.

The visitors’ own attacking options were slow to get going, with Touré playing deep and Sergio Agüero too isolated up front. Sterling, apart from providing width on the right, offered little penetration. De Bruyne and David Silva were not as influential as Guardiola would have wished. When the former went on a run towards the end of the first half, after finally making room for a shot he found Dejan Lovren in the way. Shortly after that Sterling managed to round Milner for the first time, only to find his route to goal blocked by Ragnar Klavan, who to the City player’s evident frustration did not need to do anything illegal to close the attack down without even conceding a corner.

City now needed to find a response, as they had when going a goal down to Arsenal in their last encounter with a top-four team. Sterling kept having to drop deeper for the ball, and when he got it he was unable to get past Milner. Touré tried a more direct approach on the hour, hitting Sterling with a long ball for a volley that only hit the side-netting.

City found themselves in better positions in the second half, largely because Liverpool lost some of their concentration and began giving the ball away, and when a break in play was occasioned by an injury to Jordan Henderson it was no surprise to see Milner regrouping his players and offering instructions even before he was obliged to take over the captain’s armband. City were offered a route back into the game as Liverpool reorganised but were unable to take it, De Bruyne wastefully sending a free-kick straight into the arms of Simon Mignolet.

In the final 10 minutes, with both sides giving the ball away for fun, the players belonging to “the most attacking coach in the world” – copyright P Guardiola – could regularly all be found in their own half. If it was not the sort of second v third game to strike fear into the league leaders, at least Liverpool stayed in touch and passed a test of character. City under Guardiola were unable to improve on what has been a dismal record at Anfield over the years. No one’s title challenge is over yet, but City could do with some of Liverpool’s ability to impose themselves on difficult opponents.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Wilson at Anfield, for The Observer on Saturday 31st December 2016 19.52 Europe/London

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