Soccer

James Maddison: The misunderstood playmaker who left Gareth Southgate with no other choice



“He has earned the right,” the England manager said.

“I think at various stages there have been conversations and debates about James. Ahead of the Euros, I don’t think he was in contention. He had a problem with his hip. I think September was a fair debate, but I think he is playing as well as any of the attacking players in the country. He is a little bit different to the others.”

There hasn’t just been an evolution in Maddison’s game, though. Those who know him talk of a maturing in his personality. Becoming a father has had an effect, and ensured that a confidence previously misinterpreted as arrogance is now just viewed as self-assurance.

Southgate evidently feels the same way, as he praised many of the positive elements of Maddison’s personality.

Maddison has lit up the Premier League at times this season

“He is a bit of a football student. I think there are some misconceptions, perhaps, about him. My experiences with him when he was in the under-21s and when he was with us were that he wanted to talk about the game, he wanted to talk about what was expected.”

There was then a notable follow-up to that from Southgate. The England manager is generally thought to adhere to a form of New Zealand’s “no dickheads” policy, where any cockiness or spikiness is removed from the group. The belief had been that Maddison’s specific type of self-assurance might affect the chemistry of the group in that regard. Southgate doesn’t think so.

“I’ve got no concerns about how he will be with the group. He knows most of the lads, he has been in the junior teams with a lot of them so that isn’t a concern at all.”

If the selection says a lot about Maddison’s evolution, though, it also says a fair bit about Southgate.

There is a strong argument it is one of the most drastic calls he’d ever made, even if he demurred when asked if he understood why it was described as the “most non-Southgate” decision in his press conference.

“Not really,” the manager said, with some bemusement on his face.

It’s just his previous pattern of decision-making is precisely why this raised eyebrows. Southgate has very rarely bowed to public pressure on decisions. He has been more his own man than any recent England manager.

Southgate has not had Maddison in camp since 2019

It took him two years to give Jack Grealish a place in the team. He never really looks reactive. It just seemed unthinkable that he would call up a player for a World Cup after three years, without even looking at them in another camp.

There are a few ways to interpret this. One is as regards that obvious Maddison ability, and the tactical make-up of the squad. Southgate is absolutely right that he can give England “something slightly different to the other attacking players”.

There’s also another element. It instantly removes what could have been one of the great debates of this World Cup.

Had Maddison not been called up, his name would have been brought up any time England struggled for a goal. It could have developed into a distraction.

As it is, Southgate has removed that, while adding a different weapon.

It just might lead to another distraction. That will be the clamour to get Maddison onto the pitch, in the exact way that happened with Grealish.

There’s also the more uncharitable argument that it shows Southgate indeed bending to public will for the first time; that he couldn’t ignore the noise.

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That is harsh, since the reality is his form is just too good to ignore.

Southgate just had to make the call.

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