It’s become something of a cliche to criticise James Milner. Those who follow England are particularly culpable, but there’s also a group with no specific allegiance to a national side who just see a workhorse—a player bereft of technical ability who relies solely on industry to survive as a Premier League player.
Milner’s performance in Manchester City’s 1-1 draw with league leaders Chelsea was the latest example of why those who criticise him are largely wrong. Milner is, indeed, a fitness freak who can run further and faster than the majority of his contemporaries, but he also displays great quality and technique.
His range of passing is excellent. He can play neat one- and two-touch football—the type that sees him link up brilliantly with David Silva whenever they’re on the pitch together—and he can switch the play with long, cross-field passes that find their target with accuracy.
He can also run at defenders, tackle and cross. He’s calm in possession and usually makes the right decision. And he is the kind of player a manager can trust implicitly: If he’s told to track back and nullify a particular opponent, you can be sure Milner will carry out his manager’s words to the letter.
During his man-of-the-match performance against Chelsea, he played in at least three different positions, starting wide on the right and giving Cesar Azpilicueta a torrid time, before filling in at right-back when Pablo Zabaleta was dismissed and finishing as a marauding left-back who gave City impetus.
It was a remarkable display in one of the highest-profile matches on the Premier League calendar.
And it’s nothing new.
Many of Milner’s best games for City have come in big games. More than once at Old Trafford he’s been key to a derby win, and in last season’s game at Anfield, which many viewed at the time as a title-decider, his introduction and ability to link with Silva changed the game, if not the result.
That is why City boss Manuel Pellegrini should do everything he can to convince Milner to stay beyond his current contract, which ends in the summer.
According to a report by Daniel Taylor in The Guardian at the end of last season, Milner wants assurances over his playing time before committing further. It’s an understandable position given the stage of his career and the talent in the City squad.
He didn’t play enough in Pellegrini’s first season, and with City blessed with so many midfielders, it looks likely he may struggle to play regularly again this season. His versatility makes him vital, though, and his status as a home-grown player adds further value to keeping him in the squad.
He's arguably a better central midfielder, yet with Fernandinho and Yaya Toure a fearsome partnership already, and with Fernando adding extra quality to the mix, chances there are at a premium. It's a similar scenario in wide areas, with Silva, Samir Nasri and Jesus Navas all competing with Milner for a starting berth.
But his showing against Chelsea further underlined both his physical and technical ability. This is a player devoid of ego, who cares more about the team than moments of showboating and personal gain. He's the ultimate professional who can also produce moments of technical excellence.
Getting him to pen a new deal should be uppermost in Pellegrini's mind.
Rob Pollard is Bleacher Report's lead Manchester City correspondent and will be following the club from a Manchester base throughout the 2014-15 season. Follow him on Twitter @RobPollard.