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James Maddison’s England call: Gareth Southgate’s alternative
Leicester player named in the England squad to face Bulgaria and Kosovo in upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers
Last Updated: 04/09/19 9:03pm
James Maddison is in line to make his England debut in the forthcoming international qualifiers. The Leicester playmaker has qualities that others in the squad do not and he deserves this opportunity to show Gareth Southgate what he can do, writes Adam Bate.
Even with England's fortunes on the up, talk of the paucity of options for the manager has remained a recurring theme. In this climate, it has become normal to see players awarded their first cap before the demand for their inclusion has even begun. James Maddison does not fall into the category. He will be a modern rarity - the owner of an overdue England cap.
Norwich's player of the year in the Championship in 2017/18, Maddison took to the Premier League just as easily - making a big impression at Leicester in a first ever top-flight campaign that yielded seven goals and seven assists. Since making his Premier League debut, the 22-year-old playmaker has created more chances in the competition than anyone else.
As a result, it is a bit surprising that there would be any reluctance whatsoever to fast-track Maddison into the England team. An unused substitute against Croatia and Spain last October, he was left out in the spring. Gareth Southgate explained his thinking in candid terms. "I think there are others in the attacking positions ahead of him," he said.
Southgate went on to be explicit about the tactical issue that was holding Maddison back. "I think he is a No 10 and, at the moment, we have not been playing with a 10." Even if the England manager was tempted by a switch of system, he name-checked Jesse Lingard, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling as preferred alternatives in the role.
It feels odd given that English football has been lamenting the lack of a genuine No 10 for as long as many can remember. It is almost two decades since World Cup winner George Cohen bemoaned the absence of anyone who could "make the play" and through all of the ups and downs since then the search has never stopped to find that type of player.
Even amid the euphoria of England's run to the World Cup semi-final under Southgate last year, this was seen as a key failing. "We have lots of defensive midfield players and lots of players who can dribble, but no one in between," John Barnes told Sky Sports. "We just lacked that composure, the guile and that know-how," added Gary Neville.
Southgate found success with a 3-5-2 system that negated the need for a playmaker, going instead with two runners either side of a holding midfielder. When he tweaked the formation again after the World Cup, Southgate decided to make use of the wide forwards available to him - moving Sterling to his best position and bringing in Jadon Sancho.
The player who can get his foot on the ball in the final third and pick out a pass still has value but it is a big leap from Southgate saying he does not use a No 10 to trusting that player at the heart of his team. Maddison's challenge is to challenge the thinking. Making the squad is the first part. Perhaps Brendan Rodgers has helped with the second.
Maddison spent much of last season playing off Jamie Vardy as something approaching a classic No 10. Rodgers has found a slightly different role for him, accommodating his talents just off the left flank. In his own words, the Leicester manager has moved him "out of the floaty position he has been labelled as" without restricting his creative instincts.
Against Sheffield United two weeks ago, Maddison was still allowed to drift inside to play that gorgeous pass for Vardy's opener. "I think he's flexible, that's the beauty of him," said Rodgers. "I look at Raheem when I had him at Liverpool, we played him wide, in behind as a 10, both flanks. Pep Guardiola uses him in a number of positions - as a striker, wide either side, flexible."
Rodgers added: "James is a different type of player but he is a similar ilk in terms of his view of the game. You put him in the team and then, depending on the structure of the team, you find the best position for him. Some guys can play only one role but he has the quality and the brain to play really well in a couple of positions."
Perhaps Rodgers' use of Maddison in a different position has persuaded Southgate that there is a role for him after all. His heat map this season shows that he can do his work in that half-space on the left side of the pitch - an alternative option in that zone to the players who like to run in behind but not necessarily an inferior one.
Maddison's creativity could make him particularly useful against the packed defences that are prevalent in international football. There is still room for a player who can slow things down as well as speed them up. And if Southgate does want to change things to a 4-2-3-1 mid-game then he now has a player in the squad who is well suited to that central role.
Building an international squad is a balancing act. It is not just about finding the like-for-like option. Sometimes it is about finding another solution, the player who can pick the lock when the game is not going your way. Maddison has shown he can do that for Leicester. Hopefully, he will soon be given the opportunity to show that he can do it for England too.