England have always been blessed in certain positions over the years. Goalkeeping greats have included Peter Shilton, World Cup winner Gordon Banks, Ray Clemence and more recently, the colossal presence of David Seaman between the posts for Arsenal and the national side.
At centre-back we had the leadership and class of Sir Bobby Moore, the power and positioning of Sol Campbell and the warrior-like qualities of John Terry. Upfront there’s been the poaching qualities of Gary Lineker and Michael Owen, the record-breaking goalscoring feats of Wayne Rooney, the all-round qualities of Alan Shearer while the mild-mannered boy-next-door that is Harry Kane will surely go on to break plenty of records of his own.
But in a country that has largely favoured a physical, hard-working and risk-free approach to playing football, it’s perhaps no surprise that we haven’t been blessed with the sort of play-makers that the likes of Brazil, Argentina and Portugal have boasted. Players with sharp footballing minds and even quicker feet, men who see a pass before anyone else does and who can turn a game on its head in the blink of an eye. In other words, players who you’d pay good money to watch.
There was Sir Bobby Charlton of course, who had the distinction of being England’s record-goalscorer for 47 years before his record was broken by Rooney, who did the same to Charlton’s Manchester United record for goals. With excellent range of passing and even better shooting abilities, Charlton is often regarded as one of the greatest midfielders the game has seen.
Glenn Hoddle was unusually talented and then of course, there was Paul Gascoigne. Arguably the most naturally gifted player ever to don an England shirt, moments of brilliance on the biggest stages like ‘Italy 90’ and ‘Euro 96’ were a reminder to us all of what Gazza may have been had injuries, a series of addictions and other off-field incidents not ruined what could have been one of the all-time great careers. But that’s about as good as it gets in terms of English creative midfielders.
However, whisper it softly and there may be a player on the horizon who can easily be talked about in the same breath as all of those. Leicester City’s James Maddison has already given us all a glimpse of what he can do over the course of a season and a half at the Foxes; but that may just be the beginning.
Made in Coventry, toughened up in Aberdeen
Maddison’s career has so far gone down a somewhat unusual path that’s included spells at Championship clubs Coventry (his hometown) and Norwich, hardy an environment or brand of football conducive to the skills of a natural-born number 10. Sandwiched in between that was a season on loan at Aberdeen in the battle-hardened Scottish Premier League, where getting off the pitch in one piece was as much an achievement as creating a goal.
In June 2018 came the big-money move, an alleged £20 million forked out by Leicester City for a man who had been Norwich’s 2017-18 Player of the Season.
In 2018-19 he was already doing ok under Claude Puel but it was the arrival of the tactically astute and likeable Brendan Rogers at the King Power Stadium in late February 2019 that really ignited his impact and influence on the team. In a season where they were always playing catch-up after a poor start, he still scored seven and assisted seven in the league, in what was his debut season in the Premier League.
Blossoming at Leicester
At the start of the 2019-20 season Rogers put into place something that resembled his preferred 4-3-3 he’d used to such great effect at Liverpool; a stark contrast to Puel’s favoured 4-4-2. Except it wasn’t quite like that.
It was more of a 4-3-1-2 where Maddison unsurprisingly was the ‘1’ playing in between the lines and given greater freedom to roam forward, get more time on the ball and not have to worry too much about either tracking back or occupying a pre-determined area of the pitch. With workhorse Wilfred Ndidi and the all-action Belgian international Youri Tielemans behind him, often with Harvey Barnes getting through plenty of labour of his own, the platform was set for Maddison to really shine.
Key to his success this season, which has already produced five PL goals and another five assists, has been his understanding with the effervescent and speedy Jamie Vardy. Defence-splitting throughballs in between the centre-backs and little perfectly-weighted chips over the top for a hyper-active striker to run onto aren’t in the Barcelona coaching manual… but they’re highly effective.
And a bit like Peter Beardsley/Lineker and more recently Shearer and Teddy Sheringham, there’s a pseudo-telepathy at play here with Vardy and Maddison just having a sixth sense for where the other will be, or where they want the ball to go.
Add in to the equation his deadly delivery from set-pieces and you can see why Maddison is perhaps the most important pawn of all on Rogers’ chessboard.
Barring injury to him or other key players, this set-up of Rogers looks ideally suited to carry on getting results, making a Top 2 finish a possibility and a Top 3 finish one of the more confident Premier League predictions of the season.
So what next for Maddison?
Inevitably there’s always a club that little big bigger than where you are. They’re more ambitious, they pay higher wages, they’re Champions League contenders, they increase your chances of being selected by your country, and so on.
So, it’s surely only a matter of time before a Manchester United, Manchester City or Liverpool come calling. Mind you, at a time when players such as Aaron Ramsey at Juventus and Jordan Sancho at Dortmund are proving that British players can be highly successful outside the comfort zone of the Premier League, he may just decide that a career overseas is the right move. There would be no shortage of suitors.
First though, he’ll want to make sure that he’s in that squad for Euro 2020. Despite his club performances over the last year or so, he only has the one cap to his name. A bit like the late party guest playing catch-up on the drinking stakes, it’s he who has to break into the side, not others who have to dislodge him.
And he has work to do in that regard because all of Dele Alli, Ross Barkley and Mason Mount will also be eyeing up that Number 10 role for The Three Lions he craves, with Alli in pole position for it right now.
One word of warning, though. Even before he made his England debut, he was pictured at a casino late at night after being released by England due to injury which drew the wrong sort of headlines. Last year he was sent off at Brighton, the second booking after diving to try to win a penalty.
Both incidents suggest that his decision-making need to be as sound as his pin-point passing and delightful crossing. And that may just about be the only thing that can stand in his way when it comes to being one of the best players of his generation.