JAMES Milner was asked by Jamie Redknapp this week whether he likes playing left-back.
“Honestly? No, I don’t,” was his frank reply. “It’s what the manager wants and what’s best for the team and if he thinks it’s best for the team I’ll do that.”
I’m spending less and less time on social media and watching any sort of news generally at the moment (it’s good for the soul), but even as I’ve dipped my toes back in I haven’t really seen any blowback on Milner at all for his admission.
In contrast, back in August, Daniel Sturridge admitted in a post-match interview that he’d prefer to play centre forward than on the wing, and the national and local journalists were delighted with the column inches they could fill with the story the next morning.
Asked whether he was happy playing out wide, Sturridge replied: “Well, I have to do a job for the team. That’s not saying I am happy to do it. That’s saying I have got to do a job for the team. It’s a team game. If I am put in that position, I have to play there.”
What’s the difference between the two? One is forgotten almost as quickly as it was uttered, the other led to discussions about the player’s attitude and commitment to the cause. Is the phrasing of their respective answers important? Is it their body language? Is it our general perceptions of each player outside of the comments they made? Or is it a combination of all of these things?
By coincidence, we were asked on the AFQ Football show yesterday what skills we think are most underrated in football, and we all agreed that psychological strengths such as grit, drive and determination are still strangely underestimated by many supporters. We also mentioned this clip that was doing the rounds on Twitter:
Spartan ⚒’Quick Hit’⚒ of the Day…
— FHC GBB (@FHCgirlsbball) 15 March 2017
The interviewee is Geno Auriemma, the coach of the University of Connecticut Huskies women’s basketball team and one of the most successful women’s basketball coaches of modern times. If you haven’t seen the viral clip already, it’s worth taking a look before reading on.
The first thing I thought of when watching Geno speak was the TAW Player podcast with Damian Hughes a few weeks ago, in which he discussed culture within sports teams and even mentioned, like Geno, watching the substitute bench for the body language of the players who aren’t involved in the game. If you haven’t listened to that podcast yet I’d highly recommend that you do.
This is all an interesting backdrop to a wider question about attitude and commitment compared to football skill and ability in the purest sense, especially given the debates around the mentality of this Liverpool squad as a whole, and a few key individuals in particular.
I’m not sure any of us would doubt that Sturridge has more skill and ability than Milner, and Mamadou Sakho is possibly the most skilled centre-back on our books (let’s leave aside for a moment that in some fan’s eyes he’s somehow become the greatest centre-back in the world since we stopped watching him every week).
But when you watch the video of Geno, can you imagine Jürgen Klopp saying, in private if not in public, the same things about players with poor attitude getting nowhere near his team? I know I certainly can.
His treatment of Sakho in particular stands out as an example of this philosophy, especially given that we’ve had a number of occasions this season in which Mamadou would have strengthened our team and possibly led to us picking up more points. Saying ‘I’d rather lose’ than pick players with a less than perfect attitude is a big statement to make, but one which I think we’ve seen our manager play out this season by leaving Sakho out of his plans for the greater good despite not having a replacement of his quality ready to step in (as always, the debate around whether we should have bought someone of his quality if we were letting him go is another matter). While it might not be a case of ‘I’d rather lose than play him’, it’s certainly a case of ‘I’d rather take the chance on a player with slightly less ability but better overall discipline than play him and give the wrong message to the squad’.
Back to Milner, it’s really no surprise that he’s able to make a frank admission that he doesn’t like playing left-back considering the performances he puts in there. As Redknapp said to him, he does a good job of making it look like he enjoys it. His body language and his general demeanour show us and Klopp that he is committed to the cause and, while unrelated to his position, his penalty record itself is a glimpse into the strength of his mentality. He also strikes me as the type of player that shows that demeanour through all parts of his working day. You won’t find him missing training sessions or turning up late for meetings, and when he says he’ll do a job for the team he means he’ll put everything he’s got into doing a job for the team (on and off the pitch), doing everything he can to learn how to play a new position even towards the end of his career.
I have always been a fan of Sturridge and Sakho, even before it was cool to like our error-prone centre-back, but I can’t deny that neither of them have displayed the same level of commitment as Milner, albeit in different ways. When Sturridge says he’ll play on the wing for the benefit of the team, he comes across as a sulky teenager doing what his mum told him to do even though he hates it, implying that while he’s doing the dishes he won’t be doing it with the same level of gusto he’d apply to playing FIFA on his Xbox.
While the difference is only subtle, Milner’s reply says that while he might not be happy, his statement that he will do what’s needed to assist the team is backed up with performances that had us claiming him as the best left-back in the league earlier in the season, which can only be a reflection of the work he’s put into learning how to play there. After all, he’d rather play there than not play at all.
Sturridge, on the other hand, couldn’t get in the side in August as Roberto Firmino was clearly picked as Klopp’s preferred centre forward, yet when he was given the chance in a wider position he chose to focus on how it’s more difficult for him to play there than it is at centre forward given his ability to go on autopilot in that position, rather than focus all of his energy into learning how to play as a wide man in Klopp’s set up and giving everything he’s got for the benefit of the team. If he’d have taken the latter approach, he could have forced his way into a starting 11 every week by showing that he can play in a number of positions across the front three.
Sakho’s issues are different to Sturridge’s in that on the pitch we see nothing other than 100 per cent commitment, but off the pitch the stories of ill-discipline mean that it’s no surprise Jürgen doesn’t want him around a young squad. Despite my criticism above of Sturridge, off the pitch it sounds by all accounts that he is a great influence on the youngsters, but I wonder whether his general demeanour and laid back approach is something that just doesn’t sit well with Klopp, no matter how talented and generally professional he is.
After the last couple of games, in particular his substitute performance against Manchester City, I’m starting to worry that Divock Origi might be inadvertently putting himself into this bracket. He had 15 minutes to come on to a field full of tired legs and do nothing other than sprint around to assist his team-mates, yet what we saw was a player trundling around the pitch, leaving the likes of Emre Can who had already run a marathon to close down players who Origi could and should have closed to help out his leggy midfielders.
The issue for our forward players in particular comes back to something I mentioned on last week’s Tuesday Review, that some players genuinely love to press the ball and win it back, and get as much enjoyment from that as they do creating a goal (as we unsurprisingly saw Adam Lallana saying in an interview last week), whereas others will reluctantly do a job for the team but their reluctance is written all over their bodies as they do it.
The issue from a management perspective is no different with footballers than it is with employees in any other industry. If individuals fundamentally have a different attitude to their employers, the best way forward for all concerned is to part ways.
I think we’re also now seeing this general discussion play out in the youth players coming through the ranks. Geno talks about the issues with recruiting youngsters with a passion to play and a love of the game, and when we read about Ben Woodburn it becomes clear how he’s managed to fast track himself past so many older players into the first team picture. Michael Beale said this last week of our youngest ever goal scorer:
“I remember one of the first meetings I had with Ben and his eyes nearly burnt into me, that’s how intense he was in terms of listening and taking on advice and asking questions about where we thought he can improve as a player.
“I know that sounds simple and what every player should do but it was quite rare to have a player that intrigued and asking questions about how he can improve.
“As a young player he wants to play every day. It’s the same for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria, who have got to the stage they have quicker than they thought. Every day is fantastic for them.”
I don’t get the impression that every day is fantastic for Sturridge any more, nor Origi. Granted, they’re at different stages of their careers than any of the youngsters named above, but in my view that love for the game and that passion for life in general should never change, no matter how old you are. It amazes me in all walks of life how easy it is to stand out from the crowd just by being enthusiastic and wanting to continue learning regardless of your age. Just read that statement above by Michael Beale again and think about the comments by Geno Auriemma, and take a moment to reflect on how crazy they are. In the world of elite level sports when kids have dedicated their early lives to becoming professional athletes, it’s still possible to propel yourself above your competition simply by being focused, determined and willing to listen and learn every day.
Geno mentioned briefly that it’s a reflection on society these days that it’s harder to find driven youngsters to recruit, but I’m not sure I completely agree. In every generation throughout the ages there have been people with drive and determination to make the best of things no matter what, and others with a poor attitude who live their lives based on expectation and what they are entitled to. I’ll bow to his greater experience in women’s basketball over the years and accept that his comments must be based on what he’s seen during his long career, and it may be that there is now a higher proportion of society than in previous years who live their lives based on expectation and an attitude of entitlement, but the lesson for the rest of us is clear, both in the world of football and in everyday life.
If others are dropping their standards and displaying a poor attitude, those who remain driven, focused and willing to listen and learn every day have an unbelievable opportunity to achieve whatever their hearts desire.