I once wrote that before a nation or league attempts to “produce” its own Lionel Messi, it would be well-served to produce the next James Milner. On the surface, such a statement reads like a joke laden in sarcasm. Some might say it’s bordering on mockery. But one must be cautious to assume a player like James Milner is not as valuable or less important on the football pitch than the stars and playmakers that garner the attention. That would be a massive misstep in judgment. In essence, it would put the joke back on you.
As Milner enters preseason number 20, it’s no secret that his professionalism, fitness, versatility and threshold for physical output is still off the charts. As Liverpool’s players who were not off on international duty report back for pre-season fitness testing, there’s a general acceptance about who dominates each gruelling running-based assessment like the lactate threshold run – which measures a player’s aerobic endurance – or the insufferable bleep test.
Milner is not only able to push the pace of these efforts, he does it consistently year after year. While not effortless by any stretch, his training ground footage shows a steely look of determination as he leans into the fitness tests, dropping several players all of whom are younger as he finds yet another gear to push the upper limits of his output.
When he debuted for Leeds at the age of 16, it was obvious that there was something different about such a talent as he became mainstay in the line-up in his initial seasons. Over the years, the volume and level of play ramped up as Milner turned out for Newcastle, Aston Villa a dominant Manchester City and, at present, a high-octane Liverpool. It is due to his versatility, discipline and reliability and willingness to play any position when called upon that has well-served two of English football’s powerhouse clubs in recent years.
So what is it about Milner’s longevity that few players reach well into their mid-30s playing at the highest level of club football?
Examining the state of the modern game, it is clear that football and its cast of characters understand that the game is in a constant state of change. In many ways, modern football is as formulaic as it has ever been with sequences and patterns of play drilled into the minds and muscles of the top players from the youngest ages. Additionally, tactical deployments and variations are part of the modern player’s footballing DNA that account for permutations of an amorphous playing philosophy.
As the game continues to flourish and skill, creativity and ingenuity remain invaluable to the beauty and spectacle of football, there exists a conundrum of development. Young players, more than any previous era, have access to professional-grade coaches from early ages.
It has been argued that while this is great from an organisational standpoint, it all comes at the cost of creativity. Often the result is a team of well-trained, extremely athletic role players that don’t necessarily have the creativity or panache that is so undefined yet coveted in the modern game. This begs the question: “what is creativity on the football pitch?”
The answers are undefined as well. The subjectivity of the concept makes it so. Creativity, like the game itself, is in a constant state of flux. In other words, creativity in regards to modern football is often siloed into what is deemed entertaining and effective. The problem is entertainment and effectiveness don’t intersect as much as people think. For the modern player, there is a state of uncertainty about what should be done during a game. And so the quandary persists about developing players who are essentially hard-working robots.
James Milner is not a robot, but make no mistake, he is a machine. To do what he’s accomplished in the game requires the ability to play in systems with teammates that fit the creative mould. He’s been able to play at the highest level in different eras for two decades. He’s played for coaches that all have different philosophies and demands that highlights not only his versatility, but his durability and ingenuity as a player and as a professional. There are creative players who could never have such longevity. It is no accident that Milner has amassed nearly 800 appearances in club football and been capped for his country 61 times.
From the tactics on display, the demands of each player, the systems, skill level, athleticism and intelligence – the game has evolved. As such, the roles and responsibilities of a player now blend together more than ever. For example, a full-back is expected to attack as much as defend, a target striker is now commonly seen dropping deep into the midfield to collect the ball off the backline, goalkeepers are proxy playmakers with the ball at their feet. If it is liquid football we crave, the game has truly become as fluid as ever.
However, as the footballing world rapidly accelerates to new levels of performance, there remains the need for a true constant on a pitch full of variables – the utility player. Of course, these players garner many labels: the workhorse, the machine, a unit, the terrier, the destroyer, the jack of all trades. It should be evident that a player cast in this mould or quarried from mines of football’s unglamorous doldrums is what makes the fleet-footed, supremely skilled stars of the game shine brighter.
And that just highlights the physical attributes of such a player. When one factors in the mental strength and maturity of such a player and the ripple effect they have on a team in an era where promising players are exposed to the highest levels of the professional game – and all that comes with that privilege and responsibility on and off the pitch – ‘the leadership quotient’ should have a metric associated with positive examples a seasoned pro can have on a team dynamic.
There is an art and science in being so versatile, robust, fit, intelligent; such a plug-and-play asset to any football team is almost impossible to measure. The argument could be made that the player fitting the James Milner mould is at least if not more valuable than the hot and cold mercurial talent of a star striker or flashy winger.
Yes, the flash and allure of the super-skilled player is important and more often than not it is their skill that tips the scales of a match in their teams favour, but there’s a catch. When they’re hot, they’re untouchable, unplayable. When they’re cold, however, well that’s when the questions come of form, durability, morale, and versatility.
And so we should celebrate the Milner’s of the world. Not only can these players “do it on a cold rainy night in Stoke” – that’s where they may be most comfortable. And players of this ilk do it week-in and week-out, not for years, but for decades. What makes Milner’s contributions so valuable is that his assets as a player serve his team and his managers well before they serve him. And he’s been able to do this for two decades at the highest levels.
Several years ago, a video floated around social media of Milner out on the Etihad pitch with Manchester City’s kit man lashing accurate cross-field balls into the ball bag. There are also clips of Milner literally making tackles on the ground with his face in desperation to give it all for his team and cause. He’s robust in the tackle, he tracks relentlessly, his work off the ball makes the job of his teammates easier, and his contributions during the run of play are often not captured by the camera or discussed nearly enough.
From upending Neymar in a Champions League match to executing a goal-line save at full stretch, to putting in a shift for 90 seconds or 90 minutes – this is what football is about just as much as flash players we all love.
Football’s folklore champions its stars – and rightfully so. The sport has a way of elevating figures who represent all that is attractive in being a professional player. The stardom, the glitz and glamour, the illustrious sponsors and, most prominently, the privilege of being considered invaluable to the cause. The modern game’s inflation of salaries, transfer fees and, undoubtedly, the egos of footballers, ensures that people tend to overlook the value of the utility player.
Think of football as a party. “You never regret leaving a party early but you often regret staying too late.” Milner, much like other stalwarts in the game, takes nothing for granted. They treat their preparation, diet, fitness and study of the opposition and various systems that they may be tasked with dealing with each week seriously.
Of course, there are outliers of the game that are doing the business well into their thirties like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, to name a few. These players still turn out for upwards of 50 matches a year (not including international duty) and all of whom are still so talented and dominant that they can afford to lose a step or two and they’re still levels ahead of everyone else it seems.
Although Milner is one of the most recognisable and prominent utility men in English and possibly world football, there are others who have played this role and seemingly found the mysterious fountain of youth well into the twilight of their careers. Players like Milner can spark an interesting debate when it comes to a footballer’s development.
Is it better to be a standout specialist or a versatile player who is system-agnostic meaning the method or format of the tactic system is less important to their function within that system? When the need arises to fill in a position, adjust to an opponent’s tactic, to be the bridge between order and chaos, the utility player is the plug-and-play solution in the most literal sense.
Perhaps what makes football’s utility players so special is less about their triage work on the pitch when called upon, but what we don’t see that occurs on the training pitch and away from the floodlights of the stadium pitch. Anyone who’s been around or studied the professional game and observed how players look after themselves knows that a player’s success and longevity is borderline circumstantial and alchemy as they aim to delay Father Time’s heavy-handed and inevitable signs that the show is nearly over.
The consummate professionals are the players who may turn out ten minutes or play the full 90 minutes on matchday, and regardless of their performance, stay to do mobility work, more conditioning, and even speciality work. These players seldom make the headlines and hardly receive the win bonus or bag any individual accolades.
What they do accomplish, however, is a dialled-in approach to their nutrition, physical and mental conditioning, study of the game, relationship with their manager and team’s needs, and ability to constantly evolve their playing style to continue to be an asset on the pitch.
Those involved in football development also know that for every one diamond, you’ll find a thousand pieces of crushed coal. That’s a sobering thought and opens up another door in the inexact science that is player development – why is it that all anyone wants to produce is a diamond when it may be more beneficial to be the fuel that perhaps does not burn the brightest or as quickly as everyone else, but it burns efficiently when season after season.
Another aspect of the game the utility man has figured out is the Law of Accommodation, which suggests that one must vary the pace, volume and velocity of their exertion lest they plateau and regress. Football’s utility players understand this law and they earn their livelihood by living in this arena. No matter what team they’re on or who the manager is, they do more than just plod along and do their jobs – they evolve with the game while serving as the constant in football’s equation on matchday.
As observers, we are often caught in two minds when thinking about football and the traits necessary to succeed at the game at every level. The path to mastery starts in the general, with a broad skill range and scope of play and inevitably sharpens as the game and skill level and competition advances. By the time players achieve whatever their ceiling in the game is, the game is defined by two types of players: specialists and taskers.
There can be no argument that people love nothing more than seeing a specialist ply their trade and work at their craft – often at the expense of the taskers. That’s entertainment. That’s what they’re paid to do and that’s what the vociferous crowd yearns to see. But what of the other players, the swiss army knife-types that seem to do it all – just not glamorously. Players like Milner truly are jacks of all trades, masters of … well, all of them? Let’s pump the brakes for a moment.
Modern football has afforded us a track record of where the game has been and provided a glimpse as to where it might be heading. We spoiled by the true specialists in the game and player development, especially at the elite levels, aims to produce 11 specialists on the field that come together to form a cohesive unit in a team sense that allows individuals to showcase their skill-sets while performing as an organism hell-bent on winning while playing to a philosophy and system of play.
The problem, however, is the marathon men and grinders, have become truly underappreciated. Look, some players play the piano and others carry the piano. This is the nature of football. This is the reality of professional levels of anything. All the great teams and players must have a supporting cast. Without the supporting cast, the specialists can’t go to work and be special.
Moreover, a specialist, through their football, lets the opponent show them the ways they want to be defeated on the day. But it’s the taskers, the players who are masters of consistency and adjustment that do all the intangibles that also make the game special.
If we’re not careful, the development spectrum will only try to produce players who are good at one or two aspects of play instead of well-rounded, durable, versatile players who make every team they play on better because well, they pull the sled. This presents the modern footballer with a Catch-22 regarding their outlook of skill acquisition: specialise and be irreplaceable or generalise and risk being overlooked.
The reality is football is organised at younger ages at the present. Young players often have coaches in their ear and diagramming every movement and pattern on the training pitch from the drills to the decision-making. This isn’t necessarily all bad, as the game at a high level requires organisational excellence and the ability to play multiple roles. A Milner or N’golo Kanté or any other terrier on the pitch is not going to be a showstopper in ways that Messi or Ronaldo are – never in a million years.
Make no mistake, the two player types are not the same. But would those stars be as impactful without the players who slot in and out different line-ups based on formation, opponent, day of the week, need for the team, and any other extraneous situation demanding their graft and grind? In a word, no.
Players with golden boots require players with blue collars to help. The oft-used motivational quip, “You don’t rise to the occasion, you fall to the level of your training” comes to mind when we look at the way Milner prepares for yet another season. The quote itself is poetic and just and it originates from the Greek lyrical poet, Archilochus, who is credited with being among the earliest Greek writers who were masters of communication, were also exceptional soldiers who knew what it meant to literally go to war.
And so, as James Milner enters his 20th year as a professional he may be simple, but he was never, ever boring.
By Jon Townsend @jon_townsend3