Naby Keita’s first training session with his new Liverpool teammates this week may have been a bit of an eye-opener.
The first day back sees Liverpool’s players undergo various fitness assessments and tests of endurance. Much is made of the lactate test in particular, essentially a “last man standing” trial of stamina. Players run laps of the training field until they can no longer do so.
Being an extremely fit lad, Keita will have expected to fare well in these tests, and as a new boy he would have been keen to make an impression. Yet he was left trailing in the wake of the two players most under threat by his arrival. Two men approaching the twilight of their careers and who are fighting for their Liverpool future.
The 32-year-old James Milner was the last man standing — hardly a shock given that his training-ground feats of endurance are legend — but it was a little surprising that 30-year-old Adam Lallana was the one who pushed him hardest. It’s encouraging to see Lallana in such great shape after an injury-ravaged 12 months.
For much of his career Lallana’s stamina was questioned and he was often replaced around the 70-minute mark at former club Southampton and in the early part of his Anfield career. Since then his endurance has come on massively, but now it’s his durability that has let him down, to the extent that he is beginning to make Daniel Sturridge look like Iron Man.
It’s a shame because Lallana is a joy to watch when on song. He’s England’s most technically gifted footballer and, frankly, it isn’t even close. His injury absences have caused many to forget just how important a player he can be, for both club and country. Jurgen Klopp knows, though. What Liverpool achieved last season was impressive, but Klopp frequently insisted his players deserved extra credit because they did it while coping without Lallana for almost the entire season.
After being converted into a full-time central midfielder in 2016, Lallana took his game to another level. His energy, skill, intelligence and creativity brought a new dimension to the Reds’ midfield and he was a regular provider of goals from the middle of the park. In several aspects of the game he’s the best midfielder Liverpool have.
First and foremost, Lallana is the leader of Liverpool’s pressing game. Other players take their lead from him; when he goes, they go. He’s also the best Liverpool have at making off-the-ball runs beyond the front men, dragging defenders away and opening up space for others. The Reds missed that at times last season.
Lallana’s ability is not in question, but whether his body can withstand the rigours of a season in Liverpool’s midfield certainly is. And if he can’t (and that might prove the case), then why would the Reds continue to pay his high salary when they could offload him to another club?
Sturridge was deemed surplus to requirements for that very reason, so why should Lallana be any different? He probably has until January to prove he can be counted on to stay fit, so the next few months are massive for him.
Milner has a different problem. He rarely misses any time due to injury and is as fit and durable as anybody in the squad. Ordinarily, 32 isn’t old in the modern game, but for a midfield player in Klopp’s high-tempo style it can be tough for anyone the wrong side of 30 to maintain the intensity required. Milner did that as well as anybody last season, though, and did not get anything like the credit he should have for his exceptional performances.
It’s always been that way with Milner, probably because that’s how he likes it. He’s a no-nonsense, no-frills, old-school pro who neither craves nor encourages personal glory or attention. You know exactly what you’re going to get from Milner when he plays, but will he play as often as he wants to this season? He might, but he’s got a real fight on his hands.
For three available midfield spots Klopp has to choose between Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, Keita, Georginio Wijnaldum, Milner, Lallana and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who is due to return from an ACL injury in November. (And don’t forget that Lyon midfield man Nabil Fekir would also be in the mix but for a complication that arose from his medical. Perhaps that deal will be resurrected when France are done at the World Cup, or maybe Klopp has an alternative in mind. Neither scenario would be good news for Milner or Lallana in particular.)
Liverpool have great depth in midfield now, but they also have a number of players who will not settle for a bit part, so logic dictates that something will have to give and that someone will be forced to move on.
The two most at risk would appear to be Milner and Lallana, but this week showed us there is life in the old dogs yet.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.