Football FanCast columnist Dean Brown looks at the re-emergence of James Milner.
James Milner has played 210 top-flight games and is still just 23-years-old. That is quite an extraordinary statistic, although, considering he began his playing career at the tender age of just 16-years and 309 days, it is perhaps an unsurprising one. Should he avoid serious injury Milner could play well over 500 games in his career, and, based on recent performances, Villa fans will be hoping the majority of these are with the Birmingham club.
Martin O'Neill spent a serious amount of money when he brought James Milner back to the club (£12m) and there were many, myself included, who waited to see if it was a wise investment or not. Milner's performances weren't necessary astounding last season, but they were of a high quality and gradually he made himself a regular fixture of the starting eleven. This season, however, has seen a definite improvement in the quality of the young England midfielder's game. Against Chelsea he was fantastic, a towering presence throughout the game, not only on the wings, but also in the position left vacant by the departure of Gareth Barry.
Martin O'Neill was left with a severe problem when Barry decided to make the move to Manchester City at the end of last season. Not only did the former Villa captain provide significant cover to the back four, he also possessed fine passing ability and goal-scoring prowess. An illustration of this was O'Neill's decision to push Stilian Petrov into a more holding position to allow Barry to get forward, despite the Bulgarian having played most of his career in a more advanced role. So this season began with questions about how the team would cope in the absence of Barry.
At first, frankly, the answer was not well. Villa were woeful against Wigan in the opening home game of the season, and little better in Europe against Rapid Vienna. But the beginnings of an answer came during Villa's 3-1 away win against Liverpool. At Anfield O'Neill deployed Sidwell as an out-and-out deep lying defensive midfielder, while Reo-Coker harried and hustled Liverpool a little further forward and Petrov deployed his attacking game to help feed both wingers Young and Milner and Agbonlahor up-front.
However, the return to form and fitness of John Carew and disciplinary problems involving Nigel Reo-Coker forced the Villa manager's hand into a change of tactics. The first real display of this came at home to Manchester City. The two-centre backs Richard Dunne and James Collins became more influential with Sidwell and Petrov sharing defensive/attacking responsibilities in the middle of the park and Milner increasing involved all over the pitch. Milner's growing influence could be felt during the home wins against Fulham and Portsmouth, although both matches were somewhat easy for Villa. The game against City was anything but and the eventual 1-1 draw was probably a fair result. Villa's goal was scored by Dunne from a corner taken by Milner and his ingenuity and tireless work ethic certainly endeared him to Villa fans that night.
Against Chelsea though, Milner provided the best display of his potential and class. He was colossal throughout and, with James Collins, was probably the best player on the park. O'Neill appears to have given Milner further responsibility to come out-of-position on the wing to influence the game as much as possible. Increasingly, in the position where Villa fans have grown used to seeing Gareth Barry. In doing this, Ashley Young has been able to stay in a more out-and-out winger position, where he is undoubtedly more comfortable. Should he continue to play at this level for the rest of the season, odds are he will need to book himself a ticket to South Africa for the World Cup.
Nevertheless, despite encouraging performances from Milner and Villa there is still work to be done. At present the team is too reliant on dead-ball situations in order to score. Gabriel Agbonlahor can be faulted little for his performances so far, but Carew could do with finding the net soon to help turn draws and tight wins into more comfortable ones. Ashley Young has yet to hit top-form this season, and in some away matches the question remains of whether Villa would be better off with Reo-Coker and Sidwell playing in the middle of the park in place of Carew up-front. Villa's next two matches are away at Wolves and then Everton, games which O'Neill will be extremely keen to win. Neither side is playing all that well, but both employ high-energy tactics to try and sap the stamina of the opposition.
Wolves' winger Michael Kightly has said in the run-up to the derby that Milner is the kind of player he would like to emulate in his career and he will need to play with a similar intensity if the likes of Iwelumo and Doyle are going to find success up-front. Villa on the other hand need to silence the Molineux crowd, make more of open-play situations and turn in the kind of professional performance that give sides such as Wolves too much to deal with.