It is perhaps the perfect illustration of the most unpredictable season in Premier League history that Liverpool versus Manchester United, still English football’s showcase fixture, will be an encounter between the teams currently lying ninth and sixth respectively in the table at Anfield tomorrow.
Forget the glorious histories, the century-old enmity, the trophies, the Manchester Ship Canal, Merseybeat, Madchester and all the rest that comes with Liverpool against United, the reality of the here and now for the most successful clubs in the country is that tomorrow is all about scrambling back to the summit as quickly as possible and, at the same time, plunging their most bitter rival deeper into gloom.
“I don’t think either of us has played our best football again this season,” admits Liverpool midfielder James Milner when we meet this week after training at Melwood.
“It’s still a strange scenario for both ourselves and United to be going into this game in the positions we are in, but if you’d told us in the summer that we would be going into it seven points ahead of Chelsea in mid-January, then we would have taken it. That just shows what sort of season it has been for everybody. There have been shock results on a week-by-week basis.
“It has been a ‘nearly’ season for us, but we can still turn that around by finishing the season positively and showing more of the good signs.”
“Nearly” is not good enough for Liverpool or United, but as he surveys the first six months of his time on Merseyside, having arrived at Anfield on a free transfer from Manchester City last summer, Milner insists he is at a club on an upwards trajectory.
The squad has been ravaged by injuries, inconsistency has plagued a team capable of losing at home to Crystal Palace one week and trouncing City at the Etihad the next, while upheaval in the manager’s office has seen Brendan Rodgers replaced by Jürgen Klopp.
Liverpool are attempting to negotiate transition at the same time as walking through a storm, but having experienced the very good and the very bad during a career that has seen relegation at Leeds United, chaos at Newcastle United and sustained success at City, Milner believes that Anfield is rumbling again in a positive sense.
“In terms of the club, it is exciting times to be a player here,” Milner says. “There is the ground development, the new manager and lots of players coming through, but at this club, it is about the here and now. It always is in football, no matter which club you are at, but as long as people can see the signs that we are moving forward and not struggling along this season and waiting for next year to come, then that’s good.
“When people say, ‘we can get through this season and then we will be better’, I think you see through that as an excuse. But from our performances, such as against Arsenal who are top of the league, we came away disappointed not to win. There was the win at City, we are in the Capital One Cup semi-final, in Europe and the FA Cup, so it is not like we are having a disastrous season. There are signs that we are getting to where we want to be.”
But do those signs point to a restoration of Liverpool’s glory days, of winning a league title for the first time since 1990? “When I signed for City, they hadn’t won trophies for a long time and I wanted to be in at the start of things,” Milner says. “I was lucky enough to do that. I see the same with Liverpool. They have such a great history, won many trophies in the past, but maybe in their recent history, they haven’t won as many as they would have liked. But I want to help them kick-start the trophies again.”
Klopp’s arrival in mid-October, following the sacking of Rodgers, has lifted the mood at Liverpool, despite the patchy form and mounting injuries. And having encountered Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League during his time at City, Milner believes Liverpool have hired a proven winner in the German.
“Unfortunately, I have had plenty of experience of changing managers, too many really, but it’s about what you take from it – from the good ones and the bad ones,” Milner says. “When I signed for Newcastle, Sir Bobby Robson was sacked after three or four games, so it’s not easy. A change of manager is the hardest thing in football, maybe in any job, because some people will rate you, others won’t, and you just have to accept that it is all about opinions.
“You have to start again. When a manager signs you and tells you his plans, they go out of the window once he’s gone, but that’s the game. You just have to click into the new guy as quickly as possible, but as for Jürgen Klopp, he is an experienced manager who has won big trophies.
“I played against his teams in the Champions League and I always remember the game at City [in October 2012], when Dortmund absolutely annihilated us, even though we drew 1-1. It should have ended 9-1 to them and that is no exaggeration.
“The lads were talking in the dressing room afterwards about it being like playing against a team of bees, partly because of their yellow kit, but also because they were like a swarm due to the pressure they would put you under whenever you had the ball. It was great to watch, and having been made aware of the football he plays, it is exciting for him to come here and be able to work with him.”
That Dortmund “swarm”, the so-called gegenpress which defines Klopp’s teams, has been criticised by the likes of Sunderland manager Sam Allardyce as being the root cause of the injury crisis currently afflicting the Liverpool squad. Allardyce claimed that Klopp was asking too much of his players and was paying the price for a lack of understanding about the demands of English football, but Milner rejects those suggestions.
“To be honest, I think that is a bit of bollocks,” Milner says emphatically. “Yes, look at the games we have played, but look at how many other teams have had hamstring injuries. I don’t think you can blame the style of play. People will say we are training too hard, but we have been playing every three days, so there is no time to train.
“I think the workload is a shock for the foreign lads and as the manager said, during the period of time they would have had off in Germany, we will have played 10 games. It is different, but that’s the way it is over here, so you just get on with it.”
Taking on United at Anfield will see Milner achieve the rare distinction of facing the red half of Manchester on home turf for Leeds, City and Liverpool, three clubs with their own hostilities towards Old Trafford.
Milner admits, however, it is difficult to place the rivalries in order of significance. “I have played for Leeds and City, both teams don’t particularly like Manchester United either, so it is a feeling that I have experienced before,” Milner says. “But this is a big game and I know what a big fixture it is. I have been used to watching Liverpool against United from being a kid, so I know what it is all about.
“You have the build-up and the talk before, but despite all of the history and rivalry, it ultimately comes down to 90 minutes. United have had a bad run, but seemed to be a bit unlucky against Newcastle the other night after putting in a good performance. Both teams are going into it with confidence.
“Saying that, though, I’m sure most of the fans would take a scrappy 1-0 win in this one.”
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