It may be an unpopular opinion, particularly among England fans, but James Milner is an extremely good player, and his position in their starting XI for the opening World Cup game against Italy on June 14 is surely secure.
The Manchester City midfielder is very often cast as a workhorse, a player capable of grit and tenacity, but one who falls short technically. He’s seen as indicative of England’s problems: Lacking in class and culture; incapable of providing special moments of quality to light up the biggest stage.
However, his form for City over the past few seasons suggests otherwise. Milner is, in fact, extremely proficient technically, and he usually finds his best form in the biggest games.
It’s no coincidence the player he links up most naturally with at City is David Silva, a world-class midfielder possessing all the qualities the England faithful accuse Milner of lacking. Silva is wonderfully intelligent, with an appreciation of space and time that few others can match.
He floats effortlessly around the pitch picking passes no one else in the stadium can see, often appearing to be on another level to his teammates and the opposition, yet he and the much-maligned Milner have struck a superb understanding.
They actively look for one another during games, exchanging quick passes, fully aware of each other’s position on the pitch. Indeed, it was largely their success in tandem that saw City recover from a disastrous start at Anfield in the closing weeks of the season and play Liverpool off the park in the second half, and that is by no means a one-off.
Milner’s performances at Old Trafford in City’s famous 6-1 win in 2011 and the 2-1 win in 2013, as well as away at Liverpool this season when his introduction changed the game, are just a few example of his ability to influence the biggest matches.
There’s a theory amongst the City fans that suggests Milner should be the first name on the teamsheet in matches against the best sides in the league, particularly away from home, and it stems from his history of never letting the side down when it matters.
Of course, Milner’s reputation as a hard-worker is fully justified. He has an unfathomable ability to run further than anyone else during matches, with his focus on fitness almost unnerving to those of us with just a passing interest in sport. But the idea he is impoverished in terms of ability is a myth.
And with England manager Roy Hodgson bravely naming a young, energetic squad full of potential and attacking excitement, those in the squad such as Milner, who have experience, become even more important. The likes of Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are England’s future, and the decision to take them has been welcomed across the board, but they will achieve very little without the likes of Milner alongside them.
It’s time the England fans dropped their irrational aversion to James Milner and embraced his qualities. This summer they'll be required more than ever before.
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