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James Milner's versatility makes him an elite player without all the fanfare

If you were to present James Milner with a truckload of bricks and a mixer full of cement, he would build you a house. It would not be the greatest house on the street, but it would have a roof and four walls, it would not admit draughts and it would never leak in the winter.

If you were to present Milner with a guitar and an evocative reminder of a lover lost, he would write you a ballad. It would not be the greatest ballad you've ever heard, but it would have three verses and a chorus, it would set your feet tapping and it might just remind you of someone you thought you'd forgotten.

There is nothing that Milner cannot do. On day one of the zombie apocalypse, he is the person with whom you would want to fight your way out of the city. He'd keep it together, he'd know what to pack, and once you made it to the forest, he'd know which berries you could eat without getting sick.

It is this versatility and reliability that has made him so desirable, and yet it has cursed him too. Manchester City's supporters are sick of explaining to people that their club is not "letting him go." Manuel Pellegrini can't have been much clearer about his desire to keep him. The sad truth is that Milner wants to leave and even the offer of a £165,000-a-week contract is not enough to keep him at the Etihad. He wants to play every week and he wants to play in the same position every time. And that's why Liverpool, with their gigantic Steven Gerrard-shaped hole in the midfield, might prove the ideal location.

Milner has never really had a clearly defined best position. He has simply evolved from club to club, levelling up every season as more experience extends his skill set. He is a competent striker, as City discovered when an injury crisis forced their hand this season. He can play on either flank, in the centre of midfield, at wing-back or at full-back, and that's not just at club level. He's been just as versatile for his country.

He broke into the Leeds United first team at the age of 16, a lightweight, spotty forward who wasted little time before making himself the Premier League's youngest ever goal scorer in 2002. But Leeds' financial problems meant that he made fewer than 50 appearances for the club he still supports now before being sold off for the greater good. He spent six years flitting between Newcastle and Aston Villa, rapid-fire managerial changes seeing him drop in and out of favour at St James' Park, sometimes used wide, sometimes in the centre, before a period of stability under Martin O'Neill and then the move to Manchester City in 2010.

Perhaps Pellegrini summed him up best earlier this season when he challenged the press to find him a more complete English player.

"There are players who are better technically, yes," he said. "Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn't one."

In many ways, that should make him perfect for City. It's easy to voice an intention to recruit two world-class players in every position, but it's far harder to do it and keep everyone happy. Players like Milner, in theory, while not being world beaters, can be used to drop in and out of the team, in and out of positions, providing cover where it is needed most.

But this can create a false impression, a misleading perception that Milner isn't good enough to play at the very top. Here, his versatility does him no service. Nor does the fact that he is so accomplished at the more prosaic duties, like shutting down a flank or providing cover for more flamboyant players. His goal against Swansea on the penultimate weekend was a reminder that he has always been an exceptional footballer in his own right.

And that's why he'll prove a most rewarding signing, especially if he turns up at Liverpool, where they are crying out for someone with his experience and composure. Put this man in the heart of your team and watch in awe as a multiplier effect spreads out around him, irradiating his teammates with confidence. He can see a pass as well as he can make one. He can beat a man as well as he can neutralise one. He can win a game as much as he can stop one from being lost.

He can be Liverpool's keystone, holding everything together. They will have to do much, much more at Anfield before they can win major trophies, but signing Milner would be a hell of a place to start.