Would you rather have James Milner or Paul Pogba in your team? One is 32-years-old and should be past his peak and considering the MLS, the other is 25 and should be getting better and better. One won the World Cup in the summer, the other was resting his weary legs before the new season. Both have moved in free transfers, but only one has been part of a then world record deal. Theoretically, the Manchester United man should easily be better than Liverpool’s Yorkshireman but given the way that Milner played last season and the fact he’s been keeping new signings, Naby Keita and Fabinho out of the side with his all-action displays this season asks if the tactical analysis support Liverpool’s fans tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Milner is world-class and better than Pogba?
Milner has never been a bad player. Players with 61 England caps tend not to be. But whenever fans highlight work-rate as a player’s best trait, you do begin to question whether they are just a player that a manager loves to have in his squad to cover for more talented players. Milner is almost perfect for this role in a squad having played in every outfield position except centre-back in his 654 career appearances, although if an injury crisis occurs I wouldn’t be surprised if Milner is one of the first players Jurgen Klopp turns too to play in the heart of the defence.
When Milner joined Liverpool in the summer of 2015 on a free transfer, I thought it was a good bit of business by the club. There was no way that Liverpool could lose in the deal, with Milner having won 2 Premier League titles, a FA cup and a League Cup with his previous club Manchester City and gaining invaluable experience in doing so. This experience meant he automatically became a senior player in the Liverpool squad, with him taking up the vice-captaincy. Initially, I thought that this would be because he’d be able to pass his experience onto younger players in the squad within the dressing room, but Milner made 45 appearances that season in all competitions, scoring 7 goals and making 14 assists, leading by example on the pitch.
Despite these impressive numbers and the fact he did an admirable job captaining the side during Jordan Henderson’s prolonged absences due to injury, there was a general sense that Milner’s influence was going to wane over the seasons that followed. However, that has not been the case, Milner has appeared in all of Liverpool’s games so far this season, starting all but the game against Southampton. This follows 47 appearances last season and 40 appearances, the majority of which were out of position at left-back, the season before that, with each season seeing him become more and more vital to the Liverpool side.
Pogba or Milner?
Pose this question to a Manchester United fan and they would probably laugh in your face. The obvious answer is Pogba and in terms of raw talent he would be an easy choice. However, after looking at the media representation of club form, Milner would be the one who gets the nod. The question is, which one do the statistics support?
The obvious place to start is goal involvement. So far this season Milner has scored 2 goals and got 2 assists, while Pogba has scored 4 and assisted 2. Interestingly, given the apparent bust up between Pogba and manager Jose Mourinho, all of Pogba’s goals have come in games that he has captained United. However, focusing on goal involvement only paints part of the picture when it comes to midfielders, particularly Milner and Pogba who are all action midfielders at both ends of the pitch when at their best.
Defensively, this season Milner has been close to his best, averaging 2.7 tackles per game, 1.3 interceptions and 0.3 blocks. In comparison Pogba, who many claim has been too defensive to be at his best has only averaged 1.4 tackles per game, 1 interception and 0.2 blocks. This clearly shows that Pogba playing more defensively does not play to his strengths, whereas Milner is just as able defensively as in the attacking third.
One trait that fans always associate with midfielders, particularly ones which try to run games like Milner and Pogba, is their passing ability. This season Pogba has had a higher pass success rate than Milner, with the flamboyant United midfielder seeing 87.35% of his passes hit their target with Milner only achieving an 86.4% pass success rate. However, Pogba has had less of an influence on matches than Milner, averaging 62.4 passes per game compared to Milner’s 64.6 passes per game. This is bizarre as many would, regard Pogba as United’s best player and creative hub, whereas Milner isn’t even thought of as Liverpool’s best midfielder and yet he sees more of the ball in your average game than Pogba would.
Different Tactical Systems
A lot has been written about the different tactical styles of Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp with the contrast between Milner and Pogba being typical of this. Milner is arguably playing the best football of his life and is now on a par with a player who was playing his best football when he was 22 years old. The fact that Milner is doing this at the age of 32 clearly points to the systems that both are now playing in.
Recently, the media has shone the spotlight on the relationship between Mourinho and Pogba. However, at the heart of this issue is Pogba not playing as well as everyone knows he can. While not playing badly compared to other players Pogba has not reached the levels United expected when resigning and that is arguably down to the restrictive system that he plays in. Being given a lot of defensive duties inhibits the creativity that Pogba was showing while at Juventus and can show alongside Kante in the French team. This was meant to have been rectified by the introduction of Fred to the United midfield over the summer, however United’s whole style of play is with defence at the forefront of the players’ minds restricting all their attacking players with Pogba not being the only one to suffer, as shown by the performances of Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial.
On the other end of the scale, Klopp has been able to unlock another level in all of his players, with Milner being one of several obvious improvements. Milner’s robust defensive style is perfect for Liverpool’s high press, while his much talked about engine means he is a perfect midfielder for Liverpool in the transition phase between defence and attack. Couple this with the positive atmosphere that currently surrounds the Liverpool squad and Milner has been able to thrive but will never be able to reach the level that Pogba would in a less restrictive system than United’s. Therefore, when faced with the choice between Pogba and Milner, the decision is obvious. You’d pick Pogba if he was playing with freedom and away from Mourinho’s restrictive style of play but until that happens you’d pick Milner every day of the week due to the fact that under Klopp, Milner is on par with some of the best in the world.