Aston Villa

The Thirty Million Pound Question

James Milner: The £30m question

Should James Milner complete his widely speculated transfer to Manchester City, his arrival at Eastland’s could come bundled with numerous questions regarding how City will actually utilize England’s utility man.

Milner has undoubtedly had a terrific season at Aston Villa, dutifully filling in the cracks left behind by Gareth Barry’s departure to Manchester, but where exactly Milner will fit in at City is a puzzle only Roberto Mancini has the answer to.

You see, City would have expected themselves to move onto another level this season. The purchase of token, also-ran players like Jo, Patrick Vieira and Roque Santa Cruz should be behind them if they want to progress into Champions League territory. Buying Valencia’s David Silva, for example, does show intent at least to make that progress. Plucking James Milner from Aston Villa, however, makes less sense.

The reason being is that Milner is still an unproven quantity on the big stage and is yet to acquire a position that really extracts the best out of him.

The problem is that the 24-year-old is neither an offensive midfielder nor a defensive one, he doesn’t look to pick out a defence splitting pass nor does he have the defensive discipline to break down play. When he takes a position up on the flanks he can’t effectively beat his man through trickery or pace either.

His current club is still struggling with the conundrum of where exactly James should play. The two diagrams to the left show Milner’s passes against Arsenal in the 0-0 draw last season and his passes in Villa’s 7-1 thrashing to Chelsea, also last season. To put it quite simply (and in the best of technical terms), he is all over the place. Left wing, right wing, centre midfield. And this isn’t because Villa switched formation, all these passes are at varied moments of the game as James drifts around the pitch.

Now, Villa and England fans will be aware that Milner does have a positional indiscipline that sees him wander about the pitch in a frenzied blur and that could be tamed over time, but such a varied distribution of passing positions throughout the field can only mean that Martin O’Neill still remains uncertain of where exactly Milner can play effectively. And the same conundrum will hit Roberto Mancini if they secure his transfer.

The obvious solution is to plop him into Craig Bellamy’s position. This could work, in theory at least, should Mancini continue to employ the ‘inverted’ winger system he used last season – however, we’ve already highlighted he caveat regarding Milner’s wing-play. But what about David Silva, where does he fit in? Does the Spaniard, a left footer, take the place of Adam Johnson, who was immensely successful last term? Where does this leave Bellamy and Shaun Wright-Phillips? What about the expected return of Robinho? Could Milner even oust his former teammate Gareth Barry? There’s such a plethora of options available that it will inevitably leave some unhappy. And that someone could just be Milner.

Quite why City have set their sights on Milner is uncertain. The Englishman does have spirit and determination in abundance and a few more years of football could really make the world of difference to his as yet unfocused ability. City, however, may just plan to have a competent jack James-of-all-trades on the bench in a Perspex cage with the words ‘In case of Emergency’ printed across the front. And that would be a shame.

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