As footballers get older, they’re supposed to gradually lose the elements which made them great.
Pacey wingers lose half a yard. Clinical finishers begin to see their precision desert them. Goalkeepers aren’t quite as agile as they were in their younger days.
This ought to be even more true of hard-running midfielders, who expend more energy than most during their peak years and run the risk of burnout.
James Milner, however, is not like most hard-running midfielders.
The Liverpool man retired from international football shortly after England’s Euro 2016 exit, and was converted to a full-back by club manager Jürgen Klopp last season.
With that in mind, it would be easy to think his days as a midfield powerhouse were behind him, but one ridiculous stat from the Reds’ Champions League victory over Manchester City shows we maybe spoke too soon.
Indeed, the 32-year-old’s display has a fair few England fans calling on Gareth Southgate to coax him out of retirement for the upcoming World Cup, and it’s easy to see why. If Roma’s comeback against Barcelona was the most impressive achievement of the night, this was a close second.
Manchester City midfielders Kevin de Bruyne and Fernandinho covered 11.50 and 10.51 kilometres respectively over the course of 90 minutes at the Etihad Stadium on Tuesday night. Milner’s Liverpool colleagues Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Georginio Wijnaldium and Sadio Mané all covered between 11.55 and 11.66.
If Milner covered 12km that would be impressive. But no, he went well beyond that.
Milner’s 13.53km total is more than 16% higher than the next-highest player. It’s nearly 18% higher than any opponent. It’s TWENTY-TWO PER CENT higher than Liverpool’s average for the game.
That would be impressive early on in a season, but this was Milner’s 40th game of the campaign – only Wijnaldum, Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah have played more for the club.
In a sense it’s what we should expect from a man about whom The Guardian’s Barney Ronay wrote the following sentence: “Uefa’s analysis graphics depict him as a static blob, but really Milner’s blob should be blurred with motion lines, reflecting an approach that basically involves embarking on a series of unrelenting sprints from box to box, like a man very stubbornly doing lengths of a swimming pool while a water polo match goes on all around him.”
However, there’s one thing to note about the above: Ronay wrote it all the way back in 2012, when Milner was approaching his theoretical athletic peak – no human should be capable of sustaining his ability for so long.
There’s only one answer: he must be a robot, albeit a robot who may hold the key to England’s World Cup hopes this summer – all we need to do is change his factory settings so he’s no longer retired.