Coming into today’s game, James Milner had one start and 84 minutes played through Manchester City’s six Premier League games. This is a very good player; a very versatile player. He’s a full England international who cost City $40.7 million to get from Aston Villa in the summer of 2010. Yet he’s not playing, and it has nothing to do with fitness, form, or attitude.
It has everything to do with Javi García and Jack Rodwell, two of City’s summer signings, both of whom play in central midfield. It has everything to do with Scott Sinclair, a winger proving an obstacle to Milner’s ability to get time wide. And of course, Milner’s lack of playing time has everything to do with Yaya Touré, Gareth Barry, David Silva and Samir Nasri.
Today against Sunderland, Milner got a rare start, playing along side his former Villa teammate Barry in midfield, though “rare start” aren’t words any team wants associated with a player who cost £26 million. With García injured (picking up a leg injury mid-week) and Rodwell providing more assists to the opposition than teammates, Milner should get a run in the team until his Spanish teammate returns.
The spell could prove crucial in Milner’s career. Set to turn 27 in January, Milner’s no longer a young man. He’s in the prime of his career. He needs to be playing.
If he wins back a spot in Roberto Mancini’s rotation, it will not only improve his chances to play a significant role in England’s World Cup qualifying but also maintain the possibility of making a lateral move when he inevitably has to leave Manchester City. If he can’t hold a spot, his international prospects might take a hit, and he would be looking at a step back in prestige should he get to leave the club.
I say “get” to leave because Manchester City doesn’t have the best history of letting players go. They’re more than willing to hold on to players like Roque Santa Cruz and Wayne Bridge, loan them out, and hope they restore some of their value. Where there are players like Adam Johnson and Jerome Boateng who end up being sold before they can make an impact, there is also Carlos Tévez, who City waited out last year only to return as a valued contributor.
Milner’s situation doesn’t easily fit into either group, nor will it win any sympathy from Aston Villa fans. Villans practically mocked Milner in the days before his transfer, asking why he would leave Villa Park to go sit on the bench at City. They were proven slightly foolish. Milner went on to play 58 league matches over his first two seasons at City, winning a Premier League title. Villa went from sixth place finishes to battling relegation.
This season, Villans’ predictions are starting to hold true. Milner’s not playing. Except for today.
Today, Milner is back in the starting XI. We’ll see for how long.
Update: A Milner free kick gave City a 3-0 lead in the 89th minute today versus Sunderland. Looks like he’s paving his way to Tottenham instead of Newcastle.