The most important player at Stamford Bridge on Saturday (and it's not who you think)
The transfer window closes on Monday, and yet the transfer speculation never stops. One recurring storyline over the next few months will involve James Milner, approaching the final few months of his contact at Manchester City.
The midfielder is a valued asset at the Etihad Stadium, but with no agreement yet in place, Arsenal and Liverpool are interesting in acquiring his services for next season.
In truth, it’s slightly difficult to work out why Milner would leave City. He’s playing for the Premier League champions, is seemingly settled in the north-west and is a regular in the England squad. His only complaint, it’s often agreed, can be his lacking of playing time.
This, however, isn’t entirely fair. Milner is unquestionably a classic squad player: a jack-of-all-trades, hard-working and positionally disciplined, and therefore prone to being shunted around into different positions.
Sometimes he is overlooked in favour of more dangerous attacking talents. However, in all competitions Milner has made 29 appearances this season – only Jesus Navas has made more.
Granted, not all of these have been starts. In the Premier League, Milner has started exactly half of Manchester City’s 22 league games, but he’s almost guaranteed to start the big ones: he was the star performer in the 1-1 draw against Chelsea earlier in the season, started against Arsenal, and in the derby against Manchester United. He’s made seven further substitute appearances, often to great effect, and only three times has he failed to play any part whatsoever in a league game, once because of injury.
It’s difficult to see where Milner would be guaranteed a start. Arsenal have tremendous competition for places in the attacking positions, while Brendan Rodgers prefers more attack-minded players out wide.
Alternatively, it could see him in competition with Jordan Henderson for the energetic, box-to-box midfield role he supposedly desires.
That’s the other factor to consider with Milner: perhaps he simply wants to play in another position. He arguably played his best football in a central midfield role at Aston Villa, although again it’s difficult to see what type of club would accommodate him centrally.
Now 29, it’s doubtful whether Liverpool would prefer him over Henderson, or Arsenal would select him over Aaron Ramsey or Jack Wilshere, younger players they’ve spent time nurturing. The reality is that Milner’s good enough to play central midfield for a mid-table side, but probably not – at least on a permanent basis – for a Champions League club.
Besides, he remains a very fine, underrated winger. Ahead of this weekend’s crucial meeting with Chelsea, Manuel Pellegrini will recall his fine performance in the reverse fixture, where Milner was selected over Navas and Samir Nasri. In classic Milner style, he provided a bit of everything – but his wing play was outstanding.
Fielded on the right from the outset, Milner was eventually moved into a central position after Pablo Zabeleta’s red card and Pellegrini’s reorganisation, then shifted to the left for the remainder of the contest. He took on opponents on both flanks and created 4 chances, including the assist for Frank Lampard’s equaliser.
His passing graphic from either half demonstrates his positional change, and it’s also worth pointing out the reliability of his passing, too. His completion rate was 100% before the break, and only dipped slightly when City were playing with a numerical disadvantage, chasing the game.
Perhaps Milner’s greatest quality, though, is that he combines brilliantly with David Silva, City’s chief creator. His off-the-ball running is particularly important here, although Silva is generally the player he passes to most frequently, too – against Chelsea, they swapped 28 passes, the most of any two players on the pitch.
And, of course, Milner also provides defensive steel. Silva attempts to make important tackles but is often unsuccessful – Milner’s simply more of a natural scrapper.
In reality, Milner’s future is probably as a wide midfielder – albeit one capable of playing elsewhere – and is probably at Manchester City too. Perhaps the drawn-out negotiations are simply a sign that, at 29, Milner realises he probably has one more major contract to sign in his career, and wants to maximise his financial rewards. Few would blame him for that, especially as his professionalism is exemplary. But the more he examines his options, the more he’ll value his current situation.