James Milner: From Central Midfield Kingpin to Wonderless Wasted Winger

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James Milner: From Central Midfield Kingpin to Wonderless Wasted Winger
Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

The career of James Milner has been an interesting one to follow, and those who are well acquainted with the 2009-10 version of him can scarcely believe what has come of him now.

He was brought up in the wrong position, and despite excelling on the right of midfield for Leeds United and Newcastle United as a youth, he was always one key attribute short in that area: speed.

He's not the quickest player in the world, with his muscular, squarish frame forever denying him a place in the upper echelons of the wing-wizard world.

Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Cristiano Ronaldo can all rinse a marker with ease thanks to their astonishing acceleration and top-end speed. James Milner could only stay stride for stride with the most mediocre of defenders, let alone trouble the top ones.

He joined Aston Villa for a club-record £12 million in the summer of 2008 and played his first full season in Birmingham on the right-hand side. A year later, after Gareth Barry departed, Milner was moved inside to control the midfield and blossomed as a result.

Despite playing exclusively on the flanks for his entire professional career, the switch was absolutely seamless. He formed a fantastic bond with captain Stiliyan Petrov and clearly relished bringing others into play rather than waiting for someone to serve him.

That "thickness" to his physique, the raw power he generates and his all-round, complete game is brought to the fore in the centre—a domain where Jesus Navas-esque pace isn't a requirement for success.

His playmaking skills developed, enabling him to link phases of play together, strike from distance, jump into tackles and provide cutting through-balls for Gabriel Agbonlahor.

Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The 2009-10 season, in which Milner scored a penalty in a cup final loss to Manchester United, was undoubtedly the finest of his career so far, and the unfortunate truth is he's regressed as a player at Manchester City.

Upon signing for Roberto Mancini, he declared his desire to play a central midfield role at the Etihad Stadium, but the Italian wasn't moved. As The Manchester Evening News reports, Milner even shone for England in that role during his time at City and was still denied a place in midfield.

The reasons are understandable: With the likes of Gareth Barry and Yaya Toure in the squad, Milner wasn't even assured a spot in the XI on the wing, let alone in the centre.

You could probably count on two hands the number of times he's assumed the role since leaving Villa; when he has been granted the opportunity, rust and a lack of practice have stopped him from putting in commanding showings.

Now, the 2013 version of Milner is a far cry from what he could have become—a world-class creative talent.

When Roy Hodgson picks his XI for a tough England match such as Ukraine away, the talk is of Milner coming into the team on the right to "steady the ship" or "provide a cautious, safe outlet."

In the vast majority of people's views that's what he is: a failsafe mechanism, akin to bringing on a third centre-back to see out a result.

That's awful, just awful, and while the former Leeds native has won trophies and titles at the Etihad Stadium, there must be a small part of him that wonders what could have been had he joined a top-four club willing to give him that central berth.

If he chooses to leave City at the end of his current contract, he'll field dozens of offers as a free acquisition. The key to landing this man's signature will be an assured starting spot in his preferred position.

 

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