It's not Chelsea news, but it's one of the biggest transfers of the summer, and it's highly relevant to the England team as well.
Manchester City have now eclipsed the spending sprees of the early Abromovich years, and are now some £100M pounds in the red on the transfer market this summer. Unlike last year, when they bullied Everton into selling Jolean Lescott and purchased Gareth Barry, City had primarily being going for overseas talent, picking up such names as Yaya Toure, Mario Balotelli, and Jerome Boateng from La Liga, Serie A, and the Bundesliga respectively. However, Aston Villa's midfield star James Milner had been on their wish list the whole time, and today they finalised the transfer of one of England's finest young talents.
The cost was fairly steep, considering Villa had minimal leverage. Milner had one year remaining on his contract, and as with the case with Werder Bremen's Mesut Ozil, was clearly looking to make more money and further his career elsewhere. Few would deny that Ozil is at least a comparable talent, so why was he transferred to Real Madrid for £12M while Milner made the trip to Manchester for a package valued at more than double that? Furthermore, Milner will double his current wages with his new club, making him an extremely pricey acquisition.
Aston Villa will receive £18M and the mercurial figure of Stephen Ireland, once a City talisman, in return. It looks like they got the better end of the bargain, but City are operating on entirely different rules to their West Midlands rivals. Money is not an object, and Ireland was surplus to requirements, so they gave up nothing they couldn't afford in poaching the England youngster. Villa, meanwhile, will be forced to change their style significantly if they believe that Milner/Ireland is a straight up swap.
Let's take a look at the players involved:
Stephen Ireland set Manchester on fire with his performances prior to the Great Sheik Up last season. Comfortably City's most influential player, Ireland excels as a creator and a long range specialist - Paul Scholes light, perhaps. Ireland doesn't have the vision of Scholes nor the ability to completely dictate the game from midfield, but he's in that same mould, minus the leg-breaking tackles, and has a host of other skills that Scholes simply doesn't possess. Ireland's good on the ball and acrobatic of shot; his trademark strike at City was typically the screaming volley from outside the box. However, for all his skills, Ireland is a bit erratic, both in his performances and in mental state, and when City switched to a more-defensive midset (with the arrival of an Italian coach, of course) he found himself surplus to requirements.
Ireland will not be able to fill the James Milner role with Aston Villa. He doesn't have Milner's versatility or dogged ability to defend in the centre, and he won't be filling in as a winger or a right back any time soon. If he replaces Milner like for like in central midfield, he'll force the second band of Villa's 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 to be broken up - captain Stiliyan Petrov will be forced to push deeper to make up for Ireland's shortcomings. If Villa can tweak their formation to accommodate him, and Ireland shakes off a disappointing season, they could be an absolute joy to watch on the field - Ireland at his best would be perfect for distributing the ball to the likes of Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing, and Marc Albrighton.
James Milner is a classical box to box midfielder. He's extremely disciplined and tactically astute, and able to play wherever the coach wants to put him. He was never the best pure talent on Villa's roster (that honour goes to the irrepressible Ashley Young), but his ability to work as a midfield dynamo last year moved him from 'interesting prospect' to 'long career as a starter for England'. Milner can break up attacks and then quickly link up with the forwards for a swift counter. He can shift wide and cross. He can wait at the edge of the box, Frank Lampard style, and burst in to score as the defenders are occupied with their strikers. He can shoot from range. He's not the best in the league at any one of those, mind you, but his ability to do anything asked of him with at least moderate competence makes him a fine player to have in the side.
I don't know where Manchester City would play him, but using him as a wide man would be a mistake, reducing his influence to a third of the field at best. Their main weakness against Tottenham was their inability to link up play between the seven(!) defensive players they fielded and the attacking trio of Carlos Tevez, Shaun Wright-Phillips, and David Silva, leaving the forwards completely starved of service and gifting possession to Spurs whenever City tried to push through the midfield. By swapping one of the holding midfielders to Milner and giving him license to push forward, Mancini would be losing relatively little in the way of defensive ability but would see his team considerably better integrated on the attack, a worrying proposition for the other teams vying for a Champion's League place.
The money isn't chump change, as £18M can buy a team more or less anything they want. Indeed, it was the fee Chelsea recently paid for Brazilian midfielder Ramires, who's James Milner in more or less everything but nationality. Villa may chose to spend it, or they might pocket it to cover some of their growing wage bill. If they choose to buy another player in order to shore up the team's depth, they may well be be a better side for this move. Many Villa fans will want to crucify Milner for moving to a team that didn't even make the Champions League, but with the amount of money that's going his way as a result of this transfer, he's setting up himself and his family for life. It's hard to begrudge someone for making that decision.