Milner has the chance to lift his first trophy in senior football, and add some gloss to what has so far been an excellent season for the 24 year old midfielder. However, whilst Aston Villa are also still chasing a Champions League place and the FA Cup, Milner’s form for Villa could yet see him achieve something equally prestigious-a place in Fabio Capello’s England side in this coming June.
Milner has so far been one of the stars of Martin O’Neil’s Villa team, and his switch to a central midfield position and Milner’s current form is arguably no coincidence. Following a particularly impressive performance at Ewood Park in the Carling Cup semi-final, Martin O’Neil described Milner’s contribution to the Times:
“James has been playing splendidly. He has settled into central midfield as if he’s been playing there all his life. He always felt there were goals in his game and he’s really enjoying himself at the moment”.
O’Neil’s comments cannot always be trusted of course, his comments last year that Ashey Young is world class and as good as Lionel Messi for example, appearing slightly exaggerated in retrospect. However, since moving into a central midfield position, Milner has excelled, showing the ability to win the ball, retain possession and score goals. One criticism that is levelled at the England team is that it lacks pace in the centre of midfield with Frank Lampard, but more especially Gareth Barry, at times lacking the tenacity and drive that was once provided by Owen Hargreaves. However, if Milner’s form continues along its current path, who’s to say Milner can’t, or shouldn’t dislodge Gareth Barry?
Barry has by no means had a poor season at Manchester City. Further, the anchorman role that Barry has played so effectively for England in the past may prove beyond Milner, who might lack the discipline to patrol the midfield with Lampard. However, Barry’s form has not been particularly impressive this season, and Milner could provide the energy from midfield that England lack. Villa are just a point behind City, and are still in both domestic cup competitions, and Milner’s performances and seven goals to date, surely have to give Fabio Capello food for thought.
Barry is likely to be first choice for Fabio Capello, as the Italian would be reluctant to disrupt the core of a team that qualified for the World Cup with such ease. Thus if Milner is to have an impact at the World Cup, it is likely that it is his versatility that will largely be utilised by Fabio Capello. However, what is worrying is the assertion by many that Milner would be capable of playing and starting at fullback in the event that Ashley Cole or Glen Johnson are unfit.
In the Daily Telegraph, Henry Winter wrote a piece, even before Wayne Bridge effectively retired from international football, claiming Milner should replace Ashley Cole should the Chelsea left back fail to recover from his ankle injury:
“Milner, who looks at home in international football, can play left-back. He has the versatility, tactical sense, stamina and an uncomplicated, almost old-fashioned willingness to do what is best for the team. Milner would not let England down in this position.”
I would beg to differ. Milner could do a job in an emergency at right back if absolutely necessary, but his total inexperience playing as a defender would be brutally exposed by the world’s best attackers. Furthermore, in Winter’s article, he correctly points out the importance of full-backs in the modern game, as they provide width to formations that are now often fashionably narrow.
However, playing Milner as a left back would actually hurt England’s width on the left side. Milner is right footed, and would naturally look to run and pass inside on his right side, rather than exposing the space on the left. Further, with Gerrard likely to roam, Milner cannot be expected to cope at international level with oncoming midfielders and fullbacks. The idea is ludicrous, especially as Stephen Warnock and Joleon Lescott, aside from being natural defenders, are all left footed.
Winter ends his article by stating:
“Capello must be positive: Milner’s class demands his insertion somewhere in the team.”
Winter is right on this count alone perhaps. Milner has had a great season for Villa, and has to be knocking on the England door.
However, Milner’s performances have improved drastically since he moved inside as a central midfield player. If Capello really wants to see the best of James Milner, it will come from playing the Yorkshireman in midfield. Milner must be an emergency option at fullback only, as although his versatility is a bonus, his best football is currently being played in a settled position as a central midfielder.
Milner can further his case to Capello by outplaying the likes of Carrick and Scholes at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, as it is on the big occasions such as this, that will help Fabio Capello decide whether, when it comes to James Milner, he is missing a trick.
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