THE emergence of James Milner in his new defensive role has temporarily ended a litany of unusual/mad/incapable/certifiable left-backs we’ve had going back some 30 years. Although this is not what he signed up for, he has already settled in and has become a key component of our early success this season.
Things do not look good for Alberto Moreno. His last start was against Derby County and, before that, a couple of sub appearances. He came on at Leicester and at Burnley when the game was long dead at 2-0. As one Twitter wag said, ‘he’s been brought on to shore things up.’ No, since his long jump impression into Theo Walcott, Moreno has ceased to be first choice. Jürgen has spoken.
Milner, though lacking the pace of Albie, offers an asset we’ve not seen for some time on the left side of defence — reliability. Unlike those before him, he rarely bombs forward without making sure the back door is firmly shut first. This could be due to a number of factors — age, experience or his days of playing centre midfield where he would only move forward if he had someone else screening the back four, but whatever the case, the left side now feels a lot more secure.
This is probably only a temporary measure. Milner is 30 years old and his days of playing the position where you most have to run the most are unlikely to be many, but until Moreno is trusted or Joe Gomez is ready (and deemed good enough), well, needs must.
This shortage of viable left-backs isn’t a new thing for Liverpool. Over the last 30 years or so there are only a handful who have lasted long enough to be called regulars or strong enough to make the position their own. Look at Jose Enrique. He played there, filling in between social media commitments and is a perfect example of the transitory nature of Liverpool full-backs. Did anyone see him as long term? Hardly. No one is keen to make that slot their own.
Maybe there’s been a worldwide dearth of left-backs. Over the last few years we’ve tried Andrea Dossena — who liked to make sure he ran behind his man first before tackling, Emiliano Insua (admittedly overplayed at too young an age), Paul Konchesky (just don’t), Aly Cissokho, John Arne Riise and Djimi Traore. Hardly candidates to play in the Team of the Decade.
The exception to that collection is Fabio Aurelio. Ah, Fabio.
Injuries blighted his Anfield career, but when he played you knew he was on the pitch. He’s probably the best specialised left-back we’ve had since Steve Nicol, offering a perfect mixture of positional sense and attacking flair to create the ideal left-back. With Alvaro Arbeloa on the other side, Liverpool felt balanced on both wings as that side came close to greatness.
People will talk about Fab’s Chelsea and Manchester United goals but, for me, his performance in the Arsenal game in March 2007 was a masterclass in modern left-back play. Crouch may have got the hat-trick and the headlines, but Aurelio was both solid and a threat throughout. He knew exactly when to stay back and hold a line and when to join an attack. When he chose to do the latter he could do things like this:
He’s still spoken of in hushed tones and smiles. What could have been had he stayed injury free? I know that Steve Graves still pines for him. I certainly do. Not just because of his passing and general greatness, but because of the paucity of options both before and after his Anfield tenure. The man he replaced — John Arne Riise — is regarded as a ‘legend’ by some because of his United and derby goals as well as the Istanbul cross for the opening Liverpool goal — but he wasn’t a touch on Fabio. He, like so many before and after him, was more a left midfielder masquerading as a defender and was eventually pushed up the field where he could do no harm. Ironically, the game which saw Riise return to Anfield with Fulham was one of Fabio’s last games. The Norwegian received the louder ovation of the two men and, I’ll be honest, something inside of me died.
Maybe there’s a role for him as ‘left-back coach’ or some such. I wonder if his injuries have cleared up. I wonder if he still has his boots and a liking for New Balance training gear. No reason.
I say ‘specialised’ as the best left-backs we’ve had since the 90s have invariably been right-backs who have moved over. Rob Jones, Jamie Carragher and even, arguably, Clyne and Flanagan have been solid enough when asked to switch. In 2001, Carragher played simply because you don’t mess about if you can get MarKus Babbel on the pitch. Jones was put at left-back because Jason McAteer occupied the other flank and, while he was fit, you had to get him onto the pitch somehow.
What’s particularly surprising about our left-back issue is that we’ve been over-blessed when it comes to right-backs. We’ve had some of the best in the game. Phil Neal, Steve Nicol etc., the aforementioned Rob Jones etc. right up to Steve Finnan and Arbeloa. True, there’s been the odd Glen Johnson to muddy the waters, but we’ve often had a steady Eddie on the right — look at Clyne now — but it’s never been matched on the other side of the pitch. Neal had Joey Jones — a legend if somewhat eccentric — then Alan Kennedy, who seemingly didn’t have a clue what to do with the ball when he had it. He had heart and is universally loved by Reds, but he seldom gave you a comfortable Saturday afternoon. His greatest asset was his pace, which was useful as he could correct the errors he made six or seven times a game.
So, even during the golden age, left-back was seen as a problem.
They say goalkeepers are mental, but even our best left-back in decades — Steve Nicol — was prone to extraordinary decisions. If you get a chance, read the story of him inexplicably setting fire to Gary Ablett’s wife, Debbie, in a Chinese restaurant just to see what would happen. Mind you, this is a man who lived on crisps and cans of coke yet went onto be the best full-back of his generation so logic can go and take a powder.
So there’s nothing new about all this. Left-back is and has been a problem. Midfielders? Number 10s? How many do you want? But left-backs? Scrape the barrel, lads. Thank God Milner seems to be a cut above.
Jürgen chose not to bring in further backup so he’s clearly fine with Milner playing there for a while yet. Maybe he’s got Joe Gomez in mind if we progress in the cups and he recovers sufficiently.
As for Moreno, youth can no longer be used as an excuse for his recklessness and lack of defensive discipline. After all, he’s 24 and has played in two Europa League finals so this isn’t just a kid we’ve plucked off the streets of Seville. Maybe this latest omission will knock some sense into him. I hope so as he could still be an asset.
But, unless Jürgen changes his mind in January, we’re going to rely on someone who is, fortunately, the very model of reliability.
Incidentally, Fabio Aurelio has just turned 37.