James Milner’s Liverpool career is very nearly over. Out of contract this summer, the 37-year-old, who has reportedly verbally agreed to join Brighton & Hove Albion on a free transfer, made his final Anfield appearance as a Reds player in their 1-1 draw with Aston Villa on Saturday.
Finishing the game, which was the 331st of his Liverpool career, with the captain’s armband, the veteran even played a part in fellow departee Roberto Firmino’s last-minute equaliser.
““The two boys who came on obviously showed today immediately what we will miss,” Jurgen Klopp admitted after the final whistle. “It is Milly’s mentality. I don’t want to underestimate his football, because he played really good football here, and today again.
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“But the way he comes in a game, oh my god. Whoever will do that in the next few years, it’s a high high bar because how many games he won for us in this way is insane.”
Klopp had wanted to retain Milner’s services, despite the fact that the midfielder will turn 38 next season. However, the ECHO understands he wasn’t offered a new playing contract by the club, with it instead reported that he was offered a coaching position instead.
“It would be a shame to stop when you’ve still got a bit of life in you,” Milner told LFC TV after his final Anfield outing. “Jurgen Klopp is a pretty good manager and the fact he still wanted me here and said I can still do a job is pleasing.
“I haven’t started a load of games this year, but I feel like I have contributed when I have been asked to. The club obviously made their decision on that. It’s nice I’m in a position where the manager wanted me to stay, but it got to the point where I got to terms [with it].”
Joining Liverpool on a free transfer from Man City in the summer of 2015, Milner will be remembered as the Reds’ greatest ever Bosman signing. He has, after all, won every major trophy there is to win during his eight years on Merseyside, and been crucial to Klopp’s side being crowned champions of England, Europe, and the world.
With Steven Gerrard leaving Liverpool the same summer as Milner’s arrival, he was immediately appointed as the new Reds vice-captain by Brendan Rodgers, with Jordan Henderson promoted to captain. Both players would retain such roles following Klopp’s appointment in October 2015, with the 37-year-old going on to captain the side 97 times in the absence of the England international.
As a result, there will be a change in the Liverpool captaincy pecking order this summer following Milner’s departure.
Henderson will continue as captain. However, with the Reds plotting a midfield revamp this summer, with the likes of Brighton’s Alexis Mac Allister, Chelsea’s Mason Mount, and Bayern Munich’s Ryan Gravenberch all of interest, it remains to be seen how often he will be turned to to start next season.
Currently the Reds’ third-choice captain, and a member of Liverpool’s six-man leadership group, Virgil van Dijk is likely to be appointed as the club’s new vice-captain. But who is behind him in the pecking order?
It used to be compatriot Gini Wijnaldum, with the Dutch midfielder leading the Reds 11 times during his final season at Anfield in 2020/21 in the absence of the injured Henderson and Van Dijk. However, following his own Bosman exit to Paris Saint-German, Klopp expanded the club’s leadership group following a squad vote.
“We had the three who stayed, and then the players voted for another three,” Klopp revealed in September 2021. “The three obviously were Hendo, Milly and Virg, and then the next most votes were for Trent, Robbo and Alisson Becker.
“We had a problem last year obviously from time to time, because we lost so many players that we had nobody on the players’ committee available anymore, so I thought it made sense to increase this group a little bit. That’s what we did.”
It remains to be seen if Milner will be replaced in the leadership group, or if Liverpool will just persist with their first to fifth-choice captains. Regardless, as Klopp conceded, the 37-year-old is a huge loss on and off the pitch, and has left very big shoes to fill in the dressing room.
From the three players added to the Reds’ leadership committee, Andy Robertson is in line to be promoted to Liverpool’s new third-choice captain. The Scotland skipper has worn the armband on two occasions this season, in the FA Cup loss at Brighton and the Premier League defeat to Wolves. Both Alisson and Trent Alexander-Arnold started those matches, supporting the notion that the Scot is ahead of them in the pecking order.
However, it’s unclear which of the pair stands as fourth-choice. Alisson has captained the Reds twice in the past, against Porto and AC Milan in the Champions League last season. On both occasions, Alexander-Arnold wasn’t starting.
Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold’s only appearance as Liverpool captain came against FC Midtjylland in the Champions League in December 2020. Alisson didn’t start that night because of injury, with Caoimhin Kelleher selected in goal, but that match was before either player had been added to the leadership group.
The decision to hand Alexander-Arnold the armband actually caused a little dressing room squabble at the time, with Mohamed Salah annoyed that he hadn’t been handed the captaincy.
“Honestly, I was very disappointed,” he told Spanish news outlet AS.. “I was expecting to be the captain. But it’s a manager’s decision, so I accept it.”
However, Klopp later admitted that he had made a mistake turning to the right-back, and that Divock Origi should have been captain that night as he was intending to hand it to the Reds’ longest-serving player selected to start.
“I was captain for a long time in my career, and what a heck of a job it is because there are not a lot of benefits you get, just a lot of work with all the things around,” Klopp said in December 2020 as he looked to set the record straight. “I didn’t feel or do feel the importance of being captain.
“Yes, we have a captain like Hendo and that is important, but to be a captain for one game. I didn’t realise how important that can be to players because in this world now, everything is a big story.
“I didn’t realise it was that big a story for Trent. The rule here is there is a players’ committee and it is Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Virgil van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum.
“There are pretty much the four captains. You don’t need four but if Hendo is not playing then Milly, if both are not playing then Virgil or Gini. If they all cannot play then it is usually the guy the longest at the club.
“That was, in my understanding and how I saw it, was Trent. I don’t mean the youth career, the professional career. Someone told me after it should have been Divock Origi and that was my fault because of being out on loans and stuff like that.
“So I didn’t make it that complicated, I just gave Trent the armband. And I spoke to Mo about it after the game and when I realised it didn’t work out that well, I clarified that and he said it again in the interview, so not a problem for me.
“He said he was disappointed and I didn’t do it on purpose, I just did what I did. If I made a mistake then it was that Divock Origi was not the captain.”
If all members of Liverpool’s leadership committee aren’t starting, Klopp has continually turned to his side’ longest-serving player instead. As a result, Joe Gomez has captained the Reds three times in domestic cup competition over the past two seasons.
Should Klopp not promote a new player to the leadership group to replace Milner, then Gomez remains the club’s longest-serving player outside of the committee. For the record, the next players in line to serve after him are Joel Matip, then Salah, then Fabinho.
Whether any of the trio end up captaining Liverpool for the first time next season, be it because of injury or much-changed sides in the domestic cups or Europa League, only time will now. But at least, when it comes to replacing Milner, the Reds’ new vice-captain and third-choice skipper are clear.