How James Milner went from being fringe player to focal point at Manchester City
In the summer of 2010, Manchester City spent around £150 million on reinforcing their squad and building a team to compete for the Premier League trophy. Of the eight signings purchased in that transfer window, five were in the region of £25m.
David Silva, Yaya Toure and Edin Dzeko have all proved their worth since and are still integral to the success of the side today.
Mario Balotelli made a number of significant contributions; however, he ultimately failed to live up to his promise before Roberto Mancini cut his losses and sent him back to Serie A. Englishman James Milner was the other signing, as he followed in the footsteps of Gareth Barry by swapping Aston Villa for the Etihad.
The midfielder clearly isn't as technically capable as the aforementioned names and has certainly had less of an impact in the last four seasons. Milner has never been a regular at City either under Mancini or his successor Manuel Pellegrini. He started 23 league games in his opening campaign, although that diminished to just 12 starts last term under Pellegrini.
"There are two ways to react, a right and a wrong way," admits Milner. "You can mouth off or work harder and working harder is the only way I know. Maybe that does count against me at times. The manager knows I’ll just carry on training as hard as I can. It’s no good for the team if someone sulks or disrupts training."
Milner is now in the final 12 months of his contract and it was widely anticipated he would be moving last summer. He didn't start the first three league matches, but an injury to Samir Nasri changed everything. The former Leeds man has become a vital component and not just when the Frenchman is missing.
With David Silva and Nasri as wide players the team has a tendency to become very narrow, with both playmakers looking to laterally move between the lines. Pellegrini appears to have found more balance by utilising the more direct Milner on the opposite flank when Silva plays out wide.
The Chilean likes to adapt his structure and generally opts for a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1. "The truth is that I don't have a defined system," he confessed to Champions League Weekly. "The players are capable of playing in different formations within our concept of football. I think that a team that tries to win each match relying solely on tactics for that game will never become a team with its own identity."
In matches with Arsenal and Tottenham, Silva has been used as a number 10 with Milner and Jesus Navas either side of him. The 1-1 draw with Chelsea saw Milner occupy the right wing and excel against City's most likely main competitors for the title. He made 12 more final third passes than Silva and completed 8/8 tackles.
His all-round ability rarely gets the full credit that it deserves but it's his commitment that has seen him return to the fold. Milner completes more key passes per game than any other player in the squad, while at the same time only Gael Clichy makes more tackles per match.
This improvement means that the club hierarchy would be mad to let him leave next year for free and a new contract is close. "We've been in talks with the club, we've talked about it and hopefully it can get sorted some time soon," confesses Milner.
His eagerness and raw energy compliments the greater skilled members of the roster. He displays a tireless work-rate, while his tactical awareness sees him assist his grateful full-back with defensive duties. Last weekend, Milner was left out and the champions were surprisingly defeated by West Ham. Four of City's five losses this season happened when Milner started as a substitute.
When he does come off the bench, his enthusiasm to make an impression is evident. This can have a positive influence on his fellow team-mates as they look to follow suit and replicate his desire.
His second half performance against Roma in the Champions League did exactly that, as he helped limit Maicon's attacking intent. This cameo saw him rewarded with a start in the next matchday in Moscow against CSKA and he subsequently scored his first goal of the campaign.
Milner played under 20 minutes in both wins over Manchester United last season, but in the derby this weekend you can almost guarantee he will be restored to the line-up.