Signing James Milner as a Right-Back Would Be a Canny Move by Arsene Wenger

Jack LusbyFeatured ColumnistMay 27, 2014

James Milner battling with Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen this season. Will they be teammates in 2014/15?
James Milner battling with Arsenal defender Thomas Vermaelen this season. Will they be teammates in 2014/15?Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Earlier this week, reports emerged courtesy of Matt Law of The Telegraph linking Manchester City and England midfielder James Milner with a move to Arsenal.

This was supplemented by the further claim that Arsene Wenger would utilise the 28-year-old as a replacement for departing right-back Bacary Sagna—a bizarre move from some angles, but it may be a canny one by the Frenchman.

Law suggests that Wenger’s compatriot, Sagna, is increasingly likely to leave the Gunners “after agreeing terms on a £150,000-a-week contract with (Manchester City).”

This leaves a gaping void in the Arsenal first team, with Sagna a devoted servant of the north London club since 2007.

Sagna is the epitome of the modern full-back, adept at both attack and defence, with a work rate to match, as full-backs are now increasingly expected to contribute at both ends of the pitch.

Milner is reportedly growing restless on the Etihad substitutes’ bench, having only made 12 Premier League starts this season according to, and is open to a move.

Therefore, would a move to Arsenal this summer to fill the open right-back position left by Sagna be a wise move for Milner and a canny one by Wenger?


Milner is an underrated player, with many strengths.
Milner is an underrated player, with many strengths.Alex Livesey/Getty Images


Milner is typically regarded as the archetypal utility player, and it can be seen that his versatility is his main strength.

As per WhoScored, the Englishman has started on both the right and left wings (three times each), in the centre of midfield (twice).

The Englishman predominantly found himself deployed in a deeper-lying right midfield role, where he started eight games.

The 28-year-old proved himself particularly devastating when deployed as an attacking winger, contributing two assists and one goal from these positions.

Milner’s wing play is further underlined by his exceptional crossing ability, as evidenced by his assist for Edin Dzeko’s header against Everton toward the end of the 2013/14 season—aided by a touch of guile and quick feet.

As well as becoming synonymous with versatility, Milner is infamous for his impeccable work rate, and this—complemented by his accurate crossing and his ability to adapt to various positions—would lend himself to the modern full-back role adeptly.


Milner does struggle defensively at times, and this would need to be worked on in a right-back role.
Milner does struggle defensively at times, and this would need to be worked on in a right-back role.Alex Livesey/Getty Images


Unfortunately, the majority of Milner’s weaknesses can be found in the defensive department, although these remain minor.

As per Squawka, the Englishman made on average only one defensive action per game throughout the 2013/14 season, with one block, 16 clearances and 10 interceptions in total.

Furthermore, Milner can be described merely as an average tackler, having won 51 percent of tackles attempted in the Premier League this season.

However, these deficiencies are largely due to the positions that the midfielder has been deployed in; when compared to Manchester City’s other attacking charges, these statistics stand up admirably.

For example, Milner made the most tackles (1.84) per 90 of any of City’s more advanced midfielders—Jesus Navas is second with 1.42, with Stevan Jovetic the third-most defensive with 1.23.

This suggests that Milner’s defensive contribution cannot be accurately measured by his contribution as an attacking midfielder this season—particularly within an outfit so designed by attack such as City—and therefore these weaknesses can’t be magnified as such.


The adaptation of Thierry Henry at Arsenal proves Arsene Wenger's ability to develop a player.
The adaptation of Thierry Henry at Arsenal proves Arsene Wenger's ability to develop a player.Clive Mason/Getty Images


One of the main issues with this projected switch is the adaptation of Milner from an attack-minded midfielder to a more defensive full-back.

There is, clearly, precedent under Wenger at Arsenal for the successful negotiation of a player from a moderately successful position into a supremely dominant one—case in point, Thierry Henry.

Wenger converted Henry from a struggling winger into an out-and-out striker, and the rest is history.

Elsewhere, in the Premier League this season, Liverpool midfielders Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling have both been deployed as wing-backs at times—often late in the game, or within more experimental formations—displaying the malleability of the modern wide player.

Whether Milner would be as receptive to a move, however, is questionable.

Earlier this season, with Manchester City facing an injury crisis, Manuel Pellegrini looked to turn to his most versatile of charges to fill in during the respective layoffs of Pablo Zabaleta and Micah Richards, per Adam Crafton of the Daily Mail.

However, as per James Nursey of the Daily Mirror, Milner had his reservations about a move into the role:

I've never started a game at right-back for City. I've filled in. We'll see what happens. If I'm asked to do it, I'll do that. Hopefully Pablo is back soon and it is not too bad. Ideally I won't move back to right-back because things seem to be going well moving forward. I'm contributing to the team, creating goals - it's pleasing to be able to do that.

If Wenger were to sign the Englishman, he would have to exhibit his phenomenal precedent in judging a player’s best position to persuade him that this development is for the best.


A move to Arsenal would suit Milner; at least for the short term.
A move to Arsenal would suit Milner; at least for the short term.Clint Hughes/Associated Press


A switch into a right-back role would suit Milner in terms of attributes—his ability to get both forward and back, aided by his fitness, and contribute in both sectors will lend himself to the role adeptly.

However, the Englishman clearly sees his future in a more advanced role, with Daniel Taylor of The Guardian even reporting that Milner wants to move to seal “the chance to play in the central midfield position that has continually been denied him at City.”

Law suggests that Arsenal’s other right-back targets are Serge Aurier, 21, of Toulouse, and Calum Chambers, 19, of Southampton.

Both are raw, youthful prospects who may take some time to adapt successfully into a demanding environment such as the Emirates.

Therefore, if Wenger can convince Milner that this move is the right one, he may utilise the 28-year-old in this role merely for the short term, while a more suited target develops, perhaps under the tutelage of the England international.

Arsenal can do much worse than signing Milner, and the Englishman would likely excel at right-back, at least for the short term.