James Milner can become central for Liverpool after Man City exit
Manchester City really did not want to lose James Milner but, having made public their offer of a new four-year contract worth £165,000-a-week last month, their final throw of the dice failed. Milner's decision to leave Manchester for Liverpool is rooted in his desire to play regularly, and in the position he feels is his best.
At Liverpool, there is a vacancy in central midfield that was rarely his at the Etihad. Steven Gerrard's departure to Los Angeles this summer leaves a hole at Anfield, but coincidentally Gerrard chose to make his intentions clear on Jan. 1 -- the same day that Milner, his City contract having run into its final season, was able to talk to other clubs. There has been confidence on Merseyside for some time that Milner would become a Liverpool player.
Brendan Rodgers has made frequent mention of the lack of experience within his squad beyond Gerrard. Now, he has a player with almost 600 professional appearances to call on, a veteran of two World Cups, and one who has picked up plenty of silverware during his time at City. In short, a winner. Such players are in increasingly scarce supply at Anfield; only Jordan Henderson, Martin Skrtel and forgotten man Jose Enrique remain from Liverpool's League Cup winners of 2012.
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Milner is not a Gerrard, or at least the Gerrard who will be remembered once the smoke clears from the disastrous farewell tour that the end of 2014-15 season became. Milner is not a player who can truly win a match single-handedly, nor, being from Horsforth, near Leeds, is he the on-field manifestation of every Scouser in the Kop. But Milner can be a better player for Liverpool than Gerrard was during that sad fade from grace.
Liverpool have signed a truly dedicated professional, a teetotal nonsmoker whose aim is to play as much football as possible until he no longer can. Not 30 until January, he has already achieved considerable longevity, having made his breakthrough in the winter of 2002 at Leeds United as a 16-year-old who once set a record as the Premier League's youngest-ever scorer when he netted against Sunderland.
Milner, five years younger than Gerrard, has retained his long-distance running stamina, an energy that was so often in short supply in Liverpool's midfield last season beyond Henderson. Last season's vice-captain, whom Gerrard took under his wing during his final months at the club, giving guidance on how to be a Liverpool leader on and off the field, could find himself supplanted by Milner for the role he had looked anointed for.
"The fact that Brendan Rodgers wouldn't confirm Jordan Henderson as this season's captain, even though he was captain in Gerrard's absence last season, makes me think him and Milner could be competing for the armband," said Jamie Carragher, planting a social media landmine on his Kicca account this week. "Was that another thing that enticed Milner to join?"
Milner is not the type to demand the armband as his right, but among his reasons for joining Liverpool is undoubtedly a desire for greater responsibility. Though he will no doubt be willing to maintain his versatility when required, Milner has less chance of being shunted around the team, as happened at City, and also with the England national team. Anchorman, full-back, winger, even playing off the striker, Milner has done it all, but a player of maturity rarely wishes to remain the jack of all trades.
"Intelligent, great mentality, one of those players that when you leave him out you're left with this feeling of injustice; it hurts because he should always play but sometimes you need a technical player with other characteristics," City manager Manuel Pellegrini told the Guardian in March. But while City's side was teeming with stars, Liverpool have very few technical players who might knock Milner out of the reckoning for his desired central role.
At Villa, when he won the Young Player of the Year award in 2010, he revealed that his upturn in form was down to a change in position, saying: "I've been moved into the middle and that suits me as it helps me influence the game a bit more," while earlier this season, ahead of facing Liverpool, he made clear his long-held ambitions when asked for his favourite position.
"Attacking central midfielder because I think with my engine, I can get forward and back," he said. "In the middle, if things aren't going the way of the team, you can get involved and take the game by the scruff of the neck."
Milner, the first-reserve who so often came through for City, can now become central for Liverpool over the next few years.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.