It is a mark of his immense talent and persistence that James Milner, who looked set to be on his way out of the Etihad this summer, has played in all of Manchester City’s previous 9 games and more importantly, has 7 starts from those games. He’s even been influential off the bench, with his half-time introduction against Roma in the Champions League giving City a defensive solidity they sorely missed up to that point, when manager Manuel Pellegrini realised that the Yorkshireman was a useful asset to have on the field.
But Milner, arguably City’s Player of the Season so far, rarely gets the recognition he deserves. It’s easy to get lost in a midfield that contains some of the world’s best players in David Silva, Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri, but recent performance have shown that Milner can hold his own; and if Pellegrini continues to reward the Englishman with more minutes, it is likely that Milner will play an integral part in City’s push for titles this season.
James Milner’s Characteristics
Although it was his incredible defensive display against Chelsea at home last month that was rightly applauded, even by opponent Eden Hazard, it was his assist to Frank Lampard for the equalizer that summed up his creative talents; having sprung through the defensive line to receive a pass that was coming in high and fast, he expertly weighted a first-time ball onto the path of the incoming Lampard, who made no mistake in finishing against his old club.
It is easy to get lost in an overriding narrative and dismiss the winger as a workhorse or grafter, but it is obvious that Milner thrives in City’s creative midfield when played there regularly. His neat little touches around the box and intricate link-up play are evident in most matches, and every now and again you’ll see tricks and flicks that add a little flair to his game; but his on-the-ball intelligence and decision making are also exceptional. Take, for example, the most recent match against Tottenham: lining up on the left side as Silva drifted to the centre, he was key in setting up the ball for Lampard to run onto which resulted in a penalty. Whether or not the decision was a correct one is debatable, but it is Milner’s reactions in tight situations that proves vital to most of City’s attacks, just like that one.
Creative Stats Comparison
The English international also proves a perfect foil to City’s creative wizard Silva on the left; he is not an out-and-out winger like Navas, but stretches play to the flank when involved with Zabaleta, and he doesn’t always cut in to the middle like Nasri, who would sometimes make City’s midfield seem one-dimensional and lacking width. He’s comfortable with either foot, which means you’ll see him running down both flanks at different points in the game.
He’s created more chances (3.3) and generated more key passes per 90 minutes (2.92) than players who are judged more creative, like Sanchez and Sterling, this season and it’s likely that’ll continue if he’s utilized properly by Pellegrini. He is third in the league in expected assists per 90 minutes while putting up the sort of tackle and interception numbers that you would expect from a purely defensive midfielder. Nasri’s injury seems to have come at the right time for the midfielder and at the rate it’s going, the Frenchman is going to have a hard time finding his way back into the starting XI.
Defensive Stats Comparison
Of course, it’s never easy to talk about Milner’s play and not acknowledge his defensive contribution. His versatility on the field allows his manager to shuttle him to various parts of the pitch, no more than in the Chelsea game; where he played at right-back for a while after the sending off of Pablo Zabaleta, in a game that saw him play in at least four distinct positions. He averages about 1.56 interceptions per game and wins more physical duels than his counterparts, all while committing fewer fouls; he is yet to pick up a booking this campaign. City’s attacking players can often be defensively slack; Toure and Silva regularly fail to track back, and Pellegrini’s two-striker system often leaves the two frontmen isolated and poorly positioned to do any defending, and it is here when it’s usually up to Milner to clean the mess and bomb forward in attack.
With more and more minutes under his belt this season, it looks likely that City and Milner will soon come to an agreement about a new contract. It’s exactly what he deserves, too; he’s been outstanding so far this season, and has been vital to City’s title-winning campaigns over the last four years. That’s good news for City fans everywhere; he’s a player any manager can trust, and there aren’t many better players to get you out of trouble than Not-so-Boring James Milner.
All Stats via WhoScored and Squawka