James Maddison spearheads England's challenge at this summer's European U21 Championships. Jack Wilkinson caught up with the academy coach who oversaw his early development and believes the challenge in Italy and San Marino is fit for the Premier League's most prolific playmaker.
The 2018/19 season will live long in the memory; Manchester City's title defence after one of, if not the, best title races in history, Liverpool's sixth European Cup triumph in Madrid.
Those moments that left a lasting legacy but the rise of James Maddison - from humble beginnings at Coventry City to his top-flight bow at Old Trafford - is a tale that has grabbed not only the attention of those in the Premier League but those on the continent too.
Maddison arrived at Leicester in June 2018 having just secured the Player of the Season award after his final season at Norwich, where he was the shining light in a Canaries side a far cry from the this season's promotion winners, and he seamlessly adapted to top-flight football with the Foxes with the previous challenges in his career overcome.
This summer, the 22-year-old is tasked with steering England to their first European crown in 35 years, a daunting task for some but not Maddison, as his former academy manager at Coventry, Gregor Rioch, explains.
"James needs challenges like that, you need to set the bar high, stretch him and give him some stimulation," Rioch, who now heads Wigan's academy, told Sky Sports. "He's got the attitude to lead, the courage - he made his debut at 17 at Coventry and was never fearful.
"He believes in himself and is not worried about who he's up against, has huge charisma, huge characteristics of leadership and an infectious character and love for the game that has been with him since a young age.
"He's in a good place at the moment with good people around him while he continues developing, I can only see him getting stronger and stronger for club and country."
The Premier League's prolific playmaker
Maddison is set to feature for England alongside Premier League winners Phil Foden and Demarai Gray, but the stats behind the Leicester attacking midfielder's maiden top-flight campaign suggests he will be as influential as any if the Young Lions are to go all the way.
|Player||Club||Chances (inc. assists)|
|Rodrigo de Paul||Udinese||98|
No player in the Premier League, not even Eden Hazard, created more chances than Maddison last term, while the only players able to better that tally in Europe's top five leagues were Atalanta's Alejandro Gomez and Lyon's Memphis Depay, an impressive feat considering Maddison is years younger than the pair.
What's more, if you combine Maddison's stats from his last season at Norwich in the Championship and first at Leicester, in the Premier League, not a single player in Europe's top five leagues boasts more than the 224 chances he created in the past two seasons.
"It doesn't surprise me that he's hit the ground running in the Premier League because of his work rate and work ethic," Rioch added. "His practice from dead ball situations is phenomenal, you cannot get him off the training ground.
|Norwich 17/18||Leicester 18/19|
|Goals from free-kicks||2||3|
"If teams become more physical with him and give away fouls, he'll hurt them with his free-kicks. If you drop off and let him have space, he'll hurt you with his talent and technique on the ball - he is very difficult to play against.
"The ball was like a magnet to him, where he would drift into space the ball would follow, very much like what we're seeing now."
Springboard to seniors and beyond?
Maddison was called up to Gareth Southgate's England squad in October for the Nations League matches in Croatia and Spain, valuable exposure to the senior set-up, despite not featuring in either game.
Southgate has history of introducing up and coming players into his squad and his case is as strong as any to be the next to make the step up. Rioch certainly thinks so, especially given the platform he has to strengthen his case at this summer's European Championships.
"James has got time on his side and is certainly going to find a way into that team somewhere down the line," he added.
"With a lot of teams dropping into a low block against England, you need talented, creative players to find space and unlock the block, and James has the talent to do so. You need someone who can unlock the door and are clever enough to do something out of nothing, they are the special players."
As well as breaking through to Southgate's squad, Rioch believes Maddison has all of the attributes to play at the very highest level, adding: "James is at a big, leading club now in Leicester but I see him playing for one of the top four clubs, without a shadow of a doubt he could cope with that."
Should he excel while shouldering England's expectation at the European U21 Championships, there's every chance that prediction will come to fruition.
How to follow England in Italy and San Marino
All of England's games at the Euro U21 Championship will be shown live on Sky Sports Football.
If you can't watch live, then you can also follow the action with our live blogs on www.skysports.com and the Sky Sports app, with in-game clips and highlights throughout the matches.
All the ways to watch the tournament...
Every game during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship will be shown live on Sky Sports.
Sky Sports subscribers will also be able to stream the games via the Sky Sports app or the Sky Go app.
Non-subscribers can watch all the action through NOW TV. A Sky Sports day pass is available for £8.99, a week pass for £14.99 or a month pass for £33.99. NOW TV can be streamed through a computer or apps.