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Why Gareth Southgate has a month to butter up James Milner

''We've got Milner...''

2018/04/16 17:19
By Stephen Gillett
E0

Ultimate club man is perfect international solution

"There’s no-one else", declared Gareth Southgate after England's helter-skelter 2-2 draw against Scotland at Hampden Park last June.

The Three Lions boss was bemoaning his lack of midfield options in the wake of the World Cup qualifier, going on to praise the industry of Jake Livermore, who partnered Eric Dier in the England engine room that day.

Back then you could sympathise with Southgate, who rather desperately namechecked Jack Wilshere, Danny Drinkwater and Fabian Delph as potential solutions to his glaring midfield problem.

Early retirement

One name went unmentioned though: James Milner having handed in his international wings the previous summer.

After talks with then manager Sam Allardyce, Milner had announced his retirement from international duty in August 2016, the distinct sense being that the ultimate team player was again putting his country first.

"The decision we've reached is about common sense. I wish Sam, the players, staff and supporters success in the future," he said.

What constituted common sense then, appears rather illogical now.

James Milner
2017/2018
41 Games  2319 Minutes
1   3   0   02x

More
James Milner
Liverpool
Total
126 Games  9590 Minutes
15   18   0   12x
More
James Milner
Premier League 2017/2018
29 Games  1558 Minutes
0   3   0   02x

More

Exceptional in an exceptional season

With the World Cup looming and the Liverpool man in the form of his life, it would be folly for Southgate to deny he needs Milner in his midfield this summer.

Reverting to midfield after a spell as a makeshift full-back, the 32-year-old has excelled all season for Jurgen Klopp's rampant Reds, who were paired with Roma last Friday in the Champions League semi-final draw.

In many ways, the two games that earned Liverpool their place in the last four of Europe's elite competition showcased why Milner should make Southgate's World Cup starting XI – never mind his squad.

Liverpool's fluidity in attack and defensive resilience against City stemmed from their midfield's technique, tenacity and temperament and, fantastically for Southgate, the Reds' 3-0 first leg victory at Anfield had Three Lions at the heart of it.

Milner, Jordan Henderson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain laid the foundations for the Reds´ lauded front trio to shine, the latter netting a blockbuster into the bargain.

The suspended Henderson was replaced by Georginio Wijnaldum for the second leg, but Liverpool's central trio once more laid the base for victory: Milner again instrumental in winning the midfield battle against a side managed by Pep Guardiola. Let the second half of that sentence sink in. That alone should send Southgate scampering for Milner's number.

〨etty Images

More than a match

Milner's energy, drive and dedication to the collective have never been in question – no player covering more ground at the Etihad last Wednesday. His legs may need a little longer to recover these days, hence Klopp's decision to start him on the bench in Liverpool's 3-0 win v Bournemouth yesterday, but, in athletic terms, the force is still strong with the former Man City dynamo.

However, it is Milner's ability to consistently match up technically and tactically with top-class operators this season that has been surprising.

A case in point came one round prior to knocking out City. Unbeaten at home all season, a partisan crowd in Porto turned up for the first leg of their last 16 clash baying for the blood of a Liverpool team pegged as erratic and defensively frail by the Portuguese press. The likes of Henderson and Milner were written off as limited technicians: full of endeavour, but lacking in class at elite level.

Five unanswered goals later, Porto had suffered the worst home defeat in their history and it is no stretch to say that it was 'Men v Boys' in the middle third of the pitch that night; the hosts definitively out- thought, as well as out-fought. The poise, quality and tactical acumen shown by Milner that night are not normally associated with English midfielders.

There's been impressive end product too. The glamorous Ronaldo may top the goalscoring charts, but it is no-frills Milner who leads the way for Champions League assists (7) this term.

No reason not to

In light of Milner's fine form, there have been flutters of media interest regarding him possibly coming out of retirement.

However, these have been swiftly quashed by reports that Milner has no interest in reversing his decision.

Discussion over? Not really, as Milner's reported reasons for staying in retirement no longer bear scrutiny:

1. His club career has benefitted from not being involved in England.

This is almost certainly true, yet this argument does not preclude Milner's involvement in a one-offtournament. Surely Southgate can persuade him to feature in Russia, on the agreement that he step aside for good after the tournament? A shot at World Cup glory is surely worth the inconvenience of a slightly shorter pre-season.

2. He does not want to stifle the young talent Southgate has blooded

Rather than stymie the international development of young guns such as Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli, there is a clear argument that Milner's talent and temperament would provide the very platform they need to perform. Further, any fringe players (Livermore, Winks, Wilshere...) to miss out at Milner's expense would certainly respect both his standing in the game and his fantastic current form.

James Milner
England
Total
61 Games  3476 Minutes
1   10   0   02x
More
James Milner
England [U-21]
Total
10 Games  869 Minutes
2   4   0   02x
More
James Milner
England
World Cup 2014
1 Games  76 Minutes
0   0   0   02x

More

Bowing out on the big stage

So much has changed since Milner exited the international scene: England's manager and formation; the player's position and form.

Gently mocked for his boring public persona, Milner ironically now finds himself an integral member of Klopp's "rock and roll" band – it would be a crying shame if he missed out on one final gig with England.

(He's on Twitter now too, Gareth: here @JamesMilner, not here @BoringMilner! Drop him a DM...)

Five Milner stats Gareth Southgate needs to know..
England
James Milner
NameJames Philip Milner
Born1986-01-04(32 -yrs-old)
Nationality
England
England
PositionMidfielder (Centre Midfielder)
Photos(56)
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