‘Strikers are meant to score goals,’ the lazy adage goes. For years, fans were subjected to the British press’ mocking of Emile Heskey ‘s inclusion in the England squad even though clear evidence existed that England scored more goals and performed better when he played than when he was omitted. Facing a fitness crisis at striker, Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini opted for something unusual.
For three games in succession, James Milner has been deployed as a striker in a 4-5-1 formation that ended up playing more like a 4-6-0. Milner has yet to score a goal in this role but his tireless runs and his smart moves into space, especially in wide positions, have opened the pitch up for the Blues midfielders. While City came up short against Burnley on Sunday, it wasn’t the formation that let the club down – it was the defending.
Over the festive period, the smart movement by Milner has allowed David Silva and Samir Nasri to run the channels exceptionally well while the wide play of Jesus Navas has created a plethora of chances for the Citizens. Silva’s movement is often limited by lack of space and bunching up on the pitch, an issue Manchester City has had at critical times in the last two seasons. But with more space and freedom of movement, Silva has been exceptional, scoring four goals thus far during the festive period.
While the attacking impetus from the Blues has been impressive, defensive frailties have been evident. Crystal Palace deserved better than a 3-0 loss with their performance. West Brom was at the races from about minute 20 onward, creating more real chances than the Citizens. And Burnley perhaps should have walked away from the Etihad with all three points. But what is plainly evident is that Manchester City’s formation change has actually stimulated goal scoring opportunities, irrespective of the defensive breakdowns.
Milner’s contract status may have weighed on Pellegrini’s mind. The versatile Milner, who was a favorite of former manager Roberto Mancini, has fallen down the pecking order since the Chilean took the reins at the Etihad in the summer of 2013. Now with the Englishman’s contract expiring in the summer and the reported interest of both Arsenal and Liverpool, the time was right to prove to Milner his value to the City side.
In the next few days, we will learn if Milner signs a new City deal or chooses to test the market. Either way, his versatility and value have been proven once again during the last eight days.
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