“Find me a more complete English player. There are players who’re better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.”
Manuel Pellegrini’s assessment of James Milner’s unique abilities, articulated in an interview with The Guardian last month, will be shared by many Manchester City supporters who’ve admired his efforts for the club over the past five years. But the praise comes with a sense of foreboding too. City are in need of an overhaul but few would want that to include their hard-working midfielder.
“He has an energy and athleticism which the Manchester City squad as a whole lacks,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports earlier this month. “If he goes, they’ll be losing quite a lot of things he brings to the team. He’s versatile, English and his running power, which is something that you would have to level at City – they lack that pace, certainly in midfield areas – it would be a big loss.”
Not that Milner’s contribution has been restricted to the midfield. He has operated at right-back for England, been used on both flanks, in the centre and was even a makeshift striker recently – taking on the role with typical gusto. “I played him as a forward and the team averaged three goals a game,” said Pellegrini. “He creates a lot of movement and space for the rest of his teammates.”
But it’s his most frequent position – among the City substitutes – that’s the real stumbling block to keeping Milner at the Etihad. Pellegrini admits it’s a difficult situation. “He’s one of those players that when you leave him out you’re left with this feeling of injustice. It hurts because he should always play but sometimes you need a technical player with other characteristics.”
There can be a tendency at the top of the game to focus on what a player can’t do rather than put the emphasis on what he can do. But with Milner in the final year of his contract, that situation soon shifts. Those who’d once have derided a ‘functional’ player, now prefer to consider what Pellegrini calls those “polyfunctional” qualities.
Liverpool are among those clubs strongly linked with a move for Milner and the player’s tactical flexibility is likely to be attractive to Brendan Rodgers. The Reds boss recently described Emre Can as “multi-functional” and used the lack of such players as an explanation for the team’s defeat at West Ham earlier this season when they were unable to make the diamond formation work.
Milner would appear ideally suited to the left-side of a diamond, mirroring the work of Jordan Henderson alongside him. Importantly, the 29-year-old is a versatile enough to be equally effective in a number of positions so Rodgers would not need to be wedded to any one system. Whatever the manager’s plan, he could count on rather more energy than Liverpool have shown this season.
Milner has only played the full 90 minutes for City nine times in the Premier League this season and despite operating in a variety of different position, he has covered more ground than any team-mate in every one of those matches. In fact, he’s run farther than anyone among the opposition in the last seven of them and made more sprints than anyone else on the pitch in the last eight.
That record includes the 3-1 win over West Brom on Boxing Day, the sort of Christmas period fixture in which others might flag. Instead, Milner made 111 high-intensity sprints playing as a striker – more than anyone has managed in any Premier League game this season. More importantly, City have been unbeaten in every one of those games. Milner makes a difference.
The question now is which team Milner will be making the difference for next season. What he can bring to Liverpool is obvious. How Man City will cope with his exit is rather less clear. After all, is there another player out there who does all the things Milner does well? As Pellegrini and many others already know: There isn’t one.
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