Will James Milner Break into Manuel Pellegrini's First XI?
Having been one of Manchester City’s best performing players last season, and impressing again during the summer’s warm-up matches, James Milner could be forgiven for feeling somewhat aggrieved at not making any of Manuel Pellegrini’s starting lineups so far this season. But then, Milner has never been a player to sulk and feel sorry for himself. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Since signing for City, he has often found himself out of favour, only to bide his time without fuss and force his way back into the side. Last season was a prime example. Up until the end of December, he was only fleetingly involved in league matches, making just seven appearances—many of them as a substitute—before City’s 1-0 defeat away at Sunderland.
He had suffered an injury in the 2-0 win away at Wigan in November (a game in which he scored a brilliant goal), meaning he missed the next three matches. It had been somewhat of a stop-start campaign, but, the injury aside, it was clear he wasn’t at the forefront of Mancini’s mind.
However, the Christmas period saw Milner reassert his value. Mancini realised once more that a fit James Milner is an asset to any side, and the fans’ favourite barely looked back, becoming a regular for the rest of the season. His fitness and commitment is never in question—he runs farther and harder than any player in the City squad—and he possesses great quality on the ball.
Micah Richards, Milner’s City and (one-time) England teammate, is in awe of the Yorkshireman’s commitment and professionalism. In a recent interview with Jeremy Wilson of The Telegraph, Richards was asked: “Who is the keenest in training?”
Richards’ reply was telling.
James Milner. One week in training he ran 50km. It’s insane — he is the fittest man I have ever seen. We wear monitors in training every day so we know exactly who is running how far and who has done what. They have everything on system so you can’t lie.
Anyone who has watched Milner for City won’t be overly surprised by Richards' response. He may not be the most talented and skillful player around, but you’d be hard pushed to find someone who works harder. Like the recently departed Gareth Barry, you often realise just how valuable both players are when they aren’t in the side.
This week Milner once again had to answer questions about his role at City. He gave a typically level-headed response, per Richard Jolly of ESPN, again demonstrating his willingness to bide his time.
At the moment we've had one game a week but as soon as we get back we're pretty much playing two or three games a week until January. I'm sure the team will get changed and when you get your chance, it's down to you to prove you should be in the team.
Every player wants to play. I'm lucky to be at a massive club like City and there's a lot of competition for places. That will only make me a better player.
With the amount of games we've got coming up, I'm sure I'll get a lot of games this season. Then it's down to me to perform in those games. The team is the most important thing. You want to contribute and play all the time but as long as you're winning games, that's all that matters.
Many feel Milner is a victim of his own versatility. He has operated in so many different positions—midfield, right wing and even wing-back—in recent years that most observers are unsure as to what his best position is. Although there is some truth in that, to City fans, his value is clear: City usually look like a stronger side when Milner is involved.
He undoubtedly appears more comfortable in a central midfield role where his excellent range of passing is best utilised, but he is a player who can play various roles for the team, all the time offering incredible levels of energy and industry. It's difficult to keep a player like out of the first team for any length of time.
Many will be expecting Milner’s current exodus from the starting XI to continue, but history tells us to expect different. Don’t be surprised if, by the end of the season, James Milner is a regular again for club and country.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2013-14 season. Follow him on Twitter here @TypicalCity.
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