x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

In reality, ‘Boring James Milner’ is a hugely underrated player

Along with his versatility and his formidable fitness, Manchester City's James Milner should be a shoo-in for England’s World Cup squad.

English footballer James Milner, left, who has only made eight league starts this season, has been underused by Manchester City. AFP PHOTO/ANDREW YATES
English footballer James Milner, left, who has only made eight league starts this season, has been underused by Manchester City. AFP PHOTO/ANDREW YATES

It was getting on for 11pm on a November night and a group of journalists were waiting in a draughty corridor at the Etihad Stadium, hoping to get a word with James Milner. There was no chance, we were told, Milner had gone to the gym.

Had that been another footballer, it would have sounded like an excuse to avoid the press. As it was Milner, it rang true. Who goes to the gym at 11pm at night? Milner, probably. A fitness freak, he had only played for 45 minutes against CSKA Moscow.

If others have an image to live up to, Milner has one to live down to. In popular imagination, he is the earnest dullard, the teetotal puritan who runs all day, often utterly pointlessly. It is a reputation that dates back to Euro 2012.

Statistics showed that, in England’s group game against Ukraine, he ran 1.4 kilometres further than anyone else but only completed nine passes. In the same tournament, he was brilliantly described by The Guardian’s Barney Ronay as: “A man very stubbornly doing lengths of a swimming pool while a water polo match goes on all around him.”

It was an entertainingly original comment. Since then, criticisms of Milner have become commonplace, cliched and frequently just plain wrong. A truth that is rarely acknowledged is far less fashionable: Milner is actually a rather fine footballer.

He does not exude class, but there is craft to accompany the trademark graft. It is easy to imagine Milner as the antithesis of his elegant, inventive teammate David Silva.

Actually, artisan and artist complemented one another well following the Englishman’s second-half introduction at Anfield on Sunday. Both were involved in Manchester City’s two goals and, while they eventually lost 3-2, it is no exaggeration to say Milner changed the game.

He was a distinct improvement on World Cup winner Jesus Navas. He showed a positional awareness the Spaniard lacked and illustrated his capacity to influence major matches.

It is another reason why Milner should not just be damned with faint praise or be dismissed as a footballer with physical power but no great technical skill. He has a habit of delivering on bigger stages, albeit in his own unflashy style.

Bayern Munich have only been beaten twice at the Allianz Arena since October 2012. When City won 3-2 in Bavaria in December, they faced a slightly weakened team, but they were still Bayern Munich. Milner scored the winning goal and was the outstanding player on the pitch.

The first two of City’s three successive wins against Manchester United at Old Trafford featured pivotal performances from Milner: his effectiveness in 2011’s 6-1 triumph was understated and he was overshadowed by Silva and Mario Balotelli, but he was a scorer 18 months later.

As others’ form deserted them at the end of Roberto Mancini’s reign, Milner’s professionalism equipped him to perform and, though no fan of the confrontational Italian, he flourished, too, in the 2013 wins over Arsenal and Chelsea.

It amounts to a compendium of evidence that Manuel Pellegrini should have considered. Milner, who has only made eight league starts this season, has been underused by the City manager.

In the first half of the season, when the out-of-form Javi Garcia was his default alternative to Yaya Toure and Fernandinho, the Englishman should have played more in the centre of the midfield. Navas, who has made more appearances than any other City player, has been granted opportunities that perhaps ought to have gone Milner’s way.

Perhaps Pellegrini, whose knowledge and understanding of his English squad members can be questioned, was one of the many who only saw a workhorse.

Yet it is significant Mancini and Fabio Capello saw the subtleties in Milner’s game. Both Italians appreciated footballers with the tactical intelligence and the dutiful willingness to carry out their instructions.

It is the sort of attitude that makes Milner all the more valuable against elite opponents when talent alone is not enough. Along with his versatility and his formidable fitness, it should make Milner a shoo-in for England’s World Cup squad.

The chances are that his selection may be greeted with groans, after his Euro 2012 consisted of galloping across Eastern Europe without the ball. That should reflect poorly on manager Roy Hodgson, whose limited game plan starved his players of possession, but the City man, despite selflessly shielding right-back Glen Johnson, has become a scapegoat.

Since then, mocking Milner has become a popular pastime, pursued witlessly by many and wonderfully by the creator of a Twitter parody account. “Boring James Milner” is a fount of daily tedium featuring banal utterances such as: “I’ve lost my spare key for my front door. Luckily I have a spare spare key that I can promote to spare key whilst I get a new spare spare key.”

Such deliberately uninteresting observations have turned “Boring James Milner” into a national treasure. The real James Milner is a hugely underrated player.

While it is possible to appreciate both, for City’s sake, it is to be hoped Pellegrini sees behind the stereotype a little more often and recognises the merits of a much-maligned midfielder.

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