The Premier League Return Is the Start of a Critical Year for James Maddison

Dom Smith
Jun 20, 2020, 9:27 AM GMT+1
James Maddison in the Premier League
James Maddison in the Premier League / Visionhaus/Getty Images
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In the years to come, we might remember James Maddison as being one half of a whole, with the other half being Jack Grealish.

Is it any wonder their names are often uttered in the same breath?

These are two young Englishmen with mercurial talent, more than capable of dictating the result of a Premier League match with a little sprinkle of the magic they both clearly possess. How they got to this point, though, sets them apart.

Grealish has looked head and shoulders above all his Aston Villa teammates for the last five years, which has inevitably earned him a number of rich admirers. Meanwhile, Maddison's meteoric rise has been spread across a number of clubs – hometown side Coventry, followed by Norwich, and now Leicester City.

Both, however, have been subject of considerable recent interest from Manchester United, among others. In addition, both have shone in the Premier League this season, yet neither has managed to force his way into the long-term plans of the man they both want to impress more than any other – Gareth Southgate.

Maddison laughs with Jack Grealish during a league clash
Maddison laughs with Jack Grealish during a league clash / Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

United now look unlikely to sign Maddison, who is set to put pen to paper on a new contract at Leicester. Staying put is a sensible move from a player who has been a major reason Brendan Rodgers' Foxes are sitting pretty in third place in the Premier League table as the competition finally returns from hibernation. The number of chances he creates for teammates is frightening, even compared to the league's very best attackers.

Leicester have scored fewer goals than many of the sides around them, despite hitting nine against an abject Southampton side in October. 40% of their goals have been scored or assisted by 33-year-old Jamie Vardy. Maddison's enviable quality suggests he can and should ease the burden on the veteran as this season ticks over into next.

Maddison is already a mature footballer whose decision-making is beyond his years, but he can't begin to take the pressure off club legend Vardy if he hasn't got a settled position. Many see him as a number ten, playing just in behind the striker. He simply isn't that. Maddison has adopted that role for the Foxes just once this season. As he has grown and matured, he has become a number eight. An unpredictable, tireless, quite brilliant number eight.

Under Rodgers, Leicester have become one of the league's most adaptable teams. Youri Tielemans, Dennis Praet, Harvey Barnes, Wilfred Ndidi and Maddison have all shown they can perform at the highest level in a number of roles. It is in the number eight position where Maddison has starred though. When pushed to admit his favourite position, he isn't bashful like many footballers. He is honest. He continues to insist he is a number eight, despite playing with the number ten on his back.

For Leicester, tirelessly seeking Champions League football – no more than they deserve – Maddison at eight works a treat. And, while a history of call-ups but no caps would suggest otherwise, the situation could well become much the same for England.

Grealish is yet to play for England at senior level, but Maddison has made most squads since October 2018. He eventually negotiated the final hurdle of actually winning a cap in November 2019, making a substitute appearance in England's 1000th international – a 7-0 demolition job of Montenegro.

James Maddison comes on to make his England debut
James Maddison comes on to make his England debut / Michael Regan/Getty Images

Southgate has watched Manchester City and Liverpool absolutely dominate the last few seasons of Premier League football, and has been intent on replicating their styles of play since returning from Russia, where England played 3-5-2. There are winners to every formation, and there are also losers.

The Three Lions' 4-3-3 system favours eights, but isn't kind to purely creative number tens. The likes of Fabian Delph, Ross Barkley, Harry Winks and Jordan Henderson have done well out of Gareth Southgate. These four are all slightly different in style, but they share a balance that Southgate views as paramount to the functioning of his team, and particularly his midfield. They are attack-minded players who also have the hunger to recover possession when on the back foot.

Grealish, as a winger-cum-ten, may struggle to become a key player in Southgate's side ahead of Euro 2020, unless his tactical idea changes. Maddison is made for the system, but the issue is that he doesn't track back nearly enough. When he does, he tackles well and doesn't give opposing midfielders the room they need to create effectively. Leicester City's 23-year-old starlet must develop a love for dispossessing the opposition. He's already completed the first step – he's learned how to do it effectively.

Maddison after scoring a free kick against Southampton
Maddison after scoring a free kick against Southampton / Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Things have happened very fast for Maddison. Europe's biggest clubs have been circling around a player who can ping a ball that few can see, and volley in a long-range goal that only the very best would even have the arrogance to take on.

Maddison must exploit his key attributes if he is to reach the level he looks so determined to reach. This is a crucial year in the Leicester midfielder's career progression. At the end of the year – a huge incentive for him – England compete at the European Championships.

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