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It may not have been the most significant of occasions but England’s 5-0 thrashing of San Marino back in October is memorable for summarising James Milner’s role in his national team and, to some degree, his club career.
That night Milner appeared in 3 positions and one of the many who praised his versatility was former England manager Terry Venables who recounted, as the Leeds coach who gave a 16 year old Milner his debut, the game against West Ham when moved him up the field to support the striker. It was an alien position for Milner, then at the raw age of 17, but Venables re-called his performance in the 1-0 victory as “terrific”.
It is that willingness to perform at a high-level wherever his manager chooses to field him that has earned Milner 53 England caps and five trophies, including two Premier League titles and one FA Cup, for Manchester City, since moving there from Aston Villa for £26 million in 2010. Among the many of players Sheikh Mansour has lavished portions of his vast wealth on since arriving at City in 2009, he may not have grabbed as many headlines as Yaya Toure, Robinho, David Silva and Sergio Aguero but he has been no less important, racking up 201 appearances in all competitions across five years as City have established themselves as a genuine domestic force.
The desperation of Manuel Pellegrini and City for Milner to sign a new contract as it ticked down to a conclusion this summer is testament to his value to the club who offered him £165,000-a week to stay at Eastlands. Coming off a season however in which 14 of Milner’s 32 league appearances came as a substitute, they could not ensure him regular first-team football and now Liverpool have stepped in to provide a new home.
Pellegrini was able to field Milner in 7 different positions last season, including as a withdrawn centre-forward in the role of a “false-9”, and losing such an asset will be a blow that will also harm City’s quota of home-grown players. Liverpool meanwhile, with this signing kicking off a summer where transfer business will be hugely pivotal to the future of manager Brendan Rodgers, have pulled off an astute capture who brings graft, dedication and experience of competing for top honours, a trait that their squad was notably lacking as they limped to a sixth placed finish last term.
Milner, who with the void left-behind by the outgoing captain Steven Gerrard, now has the chance to stake a claim for an integral role with his club in a season that will build up to Euro 2016, sought assurances that would be in his preferred position of centre-midfield.
Also waiting until the doubts over the future of manager Brendan Rodgers had vanquished, following a meeting with club chairman Tom Werner and Fenway Sports Group president Mike Gordon, before agreeing to move to Anfield suggests the 29 year old is seeking stability as he hits the peak of his career.
In a consistent role in a settled, familiar position, back in the one he performed so well in for Aston Villa, it gives Milner a prime opportunity to play his way into Roy Hodgson’s midfield in time for next year’s European Championships in France. With Hodgson yet to fix on a midfield system after the parting of Gerrard; see the experiments with Fabien Delph, Phil Jones in Italy and Jack Wilshere at the base of a diamond, it still smacks as transitory. There is still a huge chance for Milner to prove that he can be the single answer to a question rather than a multiple-choice solution.
Dogged by an unassuming nature and the “Boring Milner” Twitter account that plays drolly on his reticence, the ex-City man may be construed as an underwhelming acquisition in a transfer window where Liverpool and Rodgers have to eradicate the mistakes of last summer’s disaster, but he will bring energy, determination and leadership to a midfield that was found wanting for those traits last season.
With Gerrard’s drive now absent, partnering Milner’s willing endeavour alongside the hard-working Jordan Henderson is clever work from Rodgers who will look to Phillipe Coutinho to provide the craft ahead of them.
With Lucas Leiva’s tally of appearances declining by the season, Rodgers will have to seek out added protection to the back four behind them and if he finds it both Milner and Henderson will be freed-up to charge around the middle of the pitch similarly to how Gerrard and Henderson did when they narrowly ceded the title to Milner’s City in 2014.
For a large majority of last season that dynamism from all areas of the squad was lost and Rodgers will have to reinstall that if he is to restore Liverpool to the Champions League. Milner, who is likely to be followed into Anfield by Burnley’s impressive Danny Ings, is a good way to start that rebuilding process.
Pellegrini will now find it extremely difficult to replace Milner at City given the Chilean’s admiration of the player, and his opinion that there aren’t many more complete English players than him probably rings true. It is easier to list the things Milner can’t do rather than the ones he can on a football pitch.
Though for the player who has escaped definition since the days of Venables in 2002, it is time for him to limit his variety of talents to a single role as he reaches the peak of his career. Liverpool and England could be about to reap full benefit of that.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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