James Milner is not quite officially Liverpool's first summer signing – yet to pass a medical, unable to sign until his contract with City runs out at the end of the month – but James Milner is Liverpool's first summer signing. As we've suspected for some time now.
Milner is not a replacement for Steven Gerrard. No one's replacing Steven Gerrard. But he kind of is, in a lot of ways.
It's another central midfielder who provides goals and assists, versatile enough to play multiple midfield positions with an excellent range of passing, an experienced international who's won trophies and titles at club level.
If, as expected, Brad Jones joins Gerrard and Johnson in leaving this summer, Milner will be the fourth-oldest player in Liverpool's squad behind Toure, Lambert, and Skrtel – and there's no guarantee that Lambert and Skrtel will be at Liverpool next season. Milner's played more Premier League matches than any other Liverpool player – 389 – with Toure (339), Skrtel (220), and Lucas (196) the next closest. Liverpool have a dearth of experience and a dearth of leaders, and that was the case even before Gerrard's departure; there's a reason why Carragher suggested that Milner might even be named captain a few days ago. Milner brings desperately needed leadership and experience to a squad already short on it before Gerrard's exit.
Milner fits into almost any formation Rodgers can conjure, and Rodgers conjured an awful lot last season. Noticeably, Milner makes a diamond midfield more feasible. Which is kind of a waste of Liverpool's surplus of attacking midfielders – only one, maybe two, of Coutinho, Lallana, Sterling, Ibe, and Markovic would start in that formation – but it's a formation that served Liverpool well in 2013-14. So, yeah, Liverpool would still have to sign at least two strikers and/or enhance Sturridge with some cyborg parts to make that work, but, you know, anything's possible.
It's safe to assume that Milner's coming to Liverpool with the promise of more time in central midfield than he'd get at City or Arsenal, but his versatility remains a large asset. He played seven different positions last season, everywhere across the front six. Options, etc. Brendan Rodgers loves options; it's the picking one from the multiple options which causes problems.
Milner only played 1744 Premier League minutes last season, 1359 in 2013-14, 1721 in 2012-13, 1579 in 2011-12. For a player with a lot of mileage on his odometer, he should have a lot of gas left in the tank. And despite not starting often, he's capable of going 90 minutes every week, freakishly fit and rarely unavailable through injury.
Milner's per 90 statistics have a lot of similarities with both Henderson and Lallana last season.
With more playing time (especially in central midfield) and Liverpool's squad rather than City's, I suspect his attacking stats – specifically goals, shots, key passes, and assists – would be a lot closer to Henderson. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
That said, there are still some fairly impressive numbers in there. Yes, goals, key passes, and assists most notably, but his dribbles, tackles, and interceptions also pleasantly surprised. And, as advertised, they suggest a talented, well rounded footballer.
Of course, there are concerns, because it wouldn't be Liverpool if there weren't concerns.
Even with the loss of Gerrard, central midfield isn't one of Liverpool's need areas. At least not a box-to-box shuttling central midfielder, like Henderson is, like Allen is, like Can seems to be. As tempting as it is to just write "SIGN A STRIKER THAT SCORES LOTS OF GOALS" over and over and over, this is the first signing of the summer, not the last. We hope.
Rumor has it – and you know I love putting stock in rumors – that Milner will become Liverpool's highest paid player at £150k/week. Which, fine, whatever, it's not my money, free transfers are always on higher wages, he turned down even more money from City, and he'll be a valuable member of the squad. But that's also the same amount that Liverpool and Raheem Sterling reached an impasse over. Free transfer or not, there isn't a universe where Milner merits more money than Sterling, especially given Liverpool's needs.
Also, as I assume you're aware, free transfer does not mean free. £150k a week comes out to £7.8m a year. That's not much less than Lallana costs when including both transfer fee and rumored wages.
And at 29, to be 30 in January, Milner's in his prime now, but Liverpool will be lucky to get a full four good years – the rumored length of his contract – out of him. If that £150k/week makes you blanch now, imagine it when the player's 32 or 33.
But that's some ways off.
Liverpool need help right now. Given where they are, Liverpool will have to pay over the odds for help right now, although it's a safe bet that FSG will continue to ensure Liverpool live within its means. And right now, James Milner makes Liverpool a better team. He's a player who chose playing time at Liverpool ahead of more money from City and Champions League football from City or Arsenal, which is no small matter. He's a player will improve Liverpool's squad for the next season or two in the worst case scenario.
Liverpool still have much, much work to do over the next couple of months, but this isn't a bad first step. However, it remains only the first step of many.