James Milner is making us question everything we were told about football
The date is Boxing Day, 2002.
Girls Aloud are celebrating their first number one single with ‘Sound of the Underground’ after winning Popstars: The Rivals, while the second Lord of the Rings film is battling for cinema supremacy with Martin Scorsese’s epic Gangs of New York.
In the football world, Jürgen Klopp is managing a young striker named Andriy Voronin to a breakout 20-goal season in the 2. Bundesliga.
Oh, and James Milner scores his first Premier League goal, making him the youngest ever player to achieve the feat until James Vaughan nets for Everton at the tail end of the 2004-05 season.
More than a decade and a half on, Milner is still going strong. And his longevity goes against pretty much everything we’ve been told about football.
Milner isn’t the first player to threaten to peak beyond the point he’s ‘supposed’ to, and he won’t be the last, but it’s the manner of his form since his international retirement in 2016 which really jumps out.
Plenty of forwards have produced solid numbers after turning 30, not least Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristiano Ronaldo, but they have done so by being sensible with their bodies both on and off the pitch.
Both continued to cover ground into their later years, but there’s a sense they’ve been smarter with their movement and positioning when they’ve needed to be.
Bones or circuit boards?
Milner, however, continues to cover ground like a man half his age. This came to the fore during Liverpool’s Champions League win away to Manchester City in April 2018, when he covered 13.53km – nearly 2km further than any other player on the pitch – but it was constant throughout Liverpool’s Champions League campaign.
Of all the players to cover 100km in the competition in 2017-18, Milner was one of only two (alongside team-mate Jordan Henderson) to reach the milestone in fewer than 800 minutes.
Going into the final, he had covered more ground than Ronaldo in 73% of the time on the field, and outrun Madrid midfield duo Toni Kroos and Casemiro having effectively given them each an hour’s headstart.
Meanwhile, in the Premier League, he covered more ground than the notoriously omnipresent N’Golo Kanté in both of the Frenchman’s first two campaigns.
There are times at which you start to wonder whether, if you were to cut Milner open, you’d find circuit boards rather than bones.
All of this is impressive enough on its own, but it’s easy to forget how recently Klopp considered the Englshman to be better-deployed at full-back.
The switch is understandable if you look at things on paper – more than a dozen straight years of 30+ games in midfield might make you pause before selecting someone for an all-action role in the middle of the park, especially in a set-up involving as much hard running as Liverpool’s.
Slow and steady wins the race
Yet Milner has somehow combined the traits of middle and long-distance runners into one barely explicable existence.
Back at the 2004 Summer Olympics, just six weeks after Milner left relegated Leeds United for Bobby Robson’s Newcastle, Kelly Holmes won 800m gold for Great Britain after ignoring fast-starting rivals and running a balanced race.
Milner’s start was hardly the slowest as a 16-year-old breaking through, but he has displayed the same calm and balance, retaining the conviction that his career would peak as those of his peers began to fall away.
When he made his debut for England’s Under-21s in 2004, he shared a pitch with a group of players already starting games in the top two tiers, yet Lee Grant is the only member of the 19-man squad still in England’s top tier.
Only four others – Michael Dawson, Stewart Downing, David Jones and Steven Taylor – have played Premier League football in the last five years.
Milner hasn’t just outlasted them – he’s on a different plane.
When looking at Milner’s energy, it can be tempting to ignore his attacking contribution both then and now, yet he can add ‘most assists in the Champions League’ to his preposterous distance stats.
It’s not even a case of him staying consistent while others tail off, either – his nine assists are more than any player has ever achieved in Champions League history.
It’s a case of a player continuing to play to his strengths, having contributed plenty in an attacking sense, especially during his time at Aston Villa, and finally being rewarded with team-mates who also suit the things he’s good at.
Villa-era Milner pre-dates his memeification as the world’s most boring man – he had been a Manchester City player for three years when the @BoringMilner Twitter account emerged – and his final season under Martin O’Neill was one of unlikely devastation alongside Downing and Ashley Young, two other players who would be used as full-backs later in their careers.
Still, for someone who has seemingly always been ‘there’, it’s strange to think that season also marked his first ever senior England appearance, a mere 12 months before his big-money move to City.
Milner’s final Villa goal is a blend of the energy and precision which brought about the move – and with it his two Premier League titles – and points to a player who could always be mopping up deep at one moment and sending a piledriver beyond the goalkeeper the next.
There’s rarely room for nuance in discussion of footballers, and the fine line between ‘no-nonsense’ and uninspiring has been pushed on Milner’s behalf from both sides to the point that the barrier has ceased to exist.
Milner might have since leant into the characterisation, at least in terms of his public profile, but part of that characterisation has allowed his excellence on the pitch to go unchecked until Liverpool’s success has encouraged everyone to take a closer look.
In theory, we should be counting the days until he burns out, unable to sustain energy levels which a 22-year-old, let alone a 32-year-old, should be proud of.
Instead, it might go against all received wisdom, even against logic, but it feels like he could keep running forever.
By Tom Victor