DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 11: James Milner of England rounds the goalkeeper Hugo Lloris of France, only to miss his chance at goal during the UEFA EURO 2012 group D match between France and England at Donbass Arena on June 11, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
James Milner is one of England's few competent central midfielders. Can anyone explain why he's being put on the wing?
Two years ago, it wouldn't have been a particularly strange occurrence for Ashley Young and James Milner to link up to create a one-on-one chance. It would have been Milner doing the work in the centre of Aston Villa's midfield, pulling the strings behind a team that repeatedly challenged for a Champions League spot. Young would have cut in from the wings, a pass would have been hit between the centre backs, and the goalkeeper rounded, the ball eased into an empty net.
Fifteen minutes into France vs. England, and those two linked up to do something broadly similar. Only instead of Milner supplying the pass from the centre and Young running inside from the flank, the roles were reversed: In Wayne Rooney's absence, Young is playing as England's central playmaker, and in common sense's absence, James Milner is being played as a winger.
Unsurprisingly, this specific chance ended up wasted. Young's pass bisected Adil Rami and Phillippe Mexes, but Milner's attempt to round Hugo Lloris ended up with the Manchester City utility man slashing a shot into the side netting. If that pass had ended up at Danny Welbeck's feet, it would have been scored. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would be expected to put it away too. Even Andy Carroll might have given it a better go. But Milner?
When you see him play for England, it's incredible to think that Manchester City paid almost £30M for the now 26-year-old's services at the beginning of the 2010/11 season. Because what you see is a winger who works hard, makes sensible passes, has good defensive awareness and can tackle - useful skills, obviously. Notably conspicuous from that skillset is running fast, beating players and scoring goals.
In other words, James Milner can do the basics. He can do the basics well enough to play more or less anywhere. And therein lies his demise. He's turned into a glorified utility player, deployed on the flank because nobody wants to deal with Stewart Downing pulling on an England shirt. And everyone's forgotten where he played his best football: In the centre of the pitch, running the Martin O'Neill counterattack, with quick wingers on both flanks.
What makes this all the more puzzling is that there were no less than three England players out of position against France. Steven Gerrard is not a traditional central midfielder - his approach to winning the ball, loosely speaking, is to let Scott Parker do it. Ashley Young is a fine player, but he's at his most dangerous on the left, where he can cut inside to find more space. And James Milner is not a winger.
If England insist on using a 4-2-3-1 with the same personnel that started against Spain, they could get much more out of their players by shifting Gerrard up the pitch, playing Young on the left, Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right and Milner in the centre. France took full advantage of Gerrard's lackadaisical approach in the centre, and England were fortunate to have escaped. Milner wouldn't have made his captain's mistakes if played in the double-pivot, and Young wouldn't have been as woefully incompetent as his former Villa teammate as a winger.
This all comes down, really, to the perception that Milner is a wide player first. It's how City have tended to use him, and it's how England have too. If you don't see Milner as a midfielder at all, playing Gerrard deep makes some sense, especially with England's centre so badly hit by injuries. But as soon as you remember the box-to-boxer that served as the engine for O'Neill's Aston Villa, you have to wonder whether the world has gone very slightly mad.