James Maddison has been handed a belated recall to the England squad for their Euro 2020 qualifiers with Bulgaria and Kosovo, forcing his way into Gareth Southgate’s plans after a year on the fringes. The England manager has been strangely reluctant to call on Leicester’s midfielder throughout 2019, but he’s eventually been left with little choice as Maddison has again starred for an unbeaten Foxes side threatening the top six.
After his first call-up for the Nations League matches with Spain and Croatia late last year, in which he didn’t make an appearance, Maddison was sent back to the under-21s. Despite being consistently excellent in an up-and-down team, and creating more chances than any other player in the 2018/19 Premier League, he wasn’t recalled to the senior squad.
Southgate explained why Maddison wasn't included before England's qualifiers against the Czech Republic and Montenegro in March, saying: "I think he’s a No.10, and at the moment we’ve not been playing with a 10. In the 10 position we’ve also got Dele (Alli) and Raheem (Sterling), Marcus (Rashford) and Jesse (Lingard)."
But this has never been a very satisfactory argument. Maybe England don’t start with someone in that position (although effectively they do: Alli, Lingard and Ross Barkley have all been fixtures in the side since Southgate said this), but to argue that the squad can’t use the country’s most creative player doesn’t wash. England’s problem in the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia last year was not having the exact type of player that Maddison is.
In any case, if Southgate’s response was a challenge, it’s worked. Since Brendan Rodgers arrived at Leicester, Maddison has just as regularly been used from the left or as a No.8 alongside Youri Tielemans than he has as at No.10. His creative output has remained excellent; after being the only player to carve out 100 chances last season, the young midfielder has started 2019/20 with two assists in four games and a man-of-the-match display from the left wing at Chelsea.
He’s proven to be equally as flexible as England’s other attacking midfield options – in particular Barkley, who is a firm Southgate favourite despite contributing far less. It's hard to believe that the Chelsea man would ever play ahead of Maddison at club level, and indeed, he's fallen behind Mason Mount (a similar creative midfielder) in the pecking order at Stamford Bridge.
There’s little doubt that Maddison has had to work harder than most to force his way into England reckoning. This call-up has come only after he left Southgate with no alternative: the 22-year-old no longer qualifies for the U21s and has started this season where he left off.
Contrast how consistently he’s had to perform at this level compared to another call-up, Tyrone Mings, who is in after four games for a promoted side; or Mount, who made a squad before he’d even played a Premier League minute. The difference is clear.
It's also true that all of the players Southgate listed as potential No.10s ahead of Maddison in March are no longer realistic options. Sterling and Rashford play in the front three, Alli has been injured, and Southgate himself has contributed to as many goals as Lingard (who makes the cut again) in 2019. There isn’t a reasonable footballing argument for leaving the Leicester man out this time.
A feature of the Southgate era has been a ruthless streak that belies his nice guy image. If you don't fit the style and attitude of what he wants, you're out and there's no coming back. Chris Smalling was publicly shamed for his passing ability, while Jack Wilshere and Jonjo Shelvey both saw their recall claims bluntly dismissed in every press conference. Others have felt it too.
If there's no question about Maddison’s ability, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Southgate has perhaps seen something else he isn’t sure about up to now. There have been some rumblings about this over the past year – Maddison is a supremely confident and experienced 22-year-old after all, although that's generally considered a key strength of his rather than a weakness.
It should be noted that Maddison is almost universally popular with fans of every team he’s played for; those of Coventry, Aberdeen, Norwich and now Leicester. Positive off-field stories far outweigh a solitary negative one (from 2016, no less), and although this proves nothing, it seems odd that anything non-football related could have delayed his first senior cap.
Whatever the reasons, Southgate has eventually been left with no choice. His England side has developed impressively over the years to adapt to the players it has, and Maddison has played too well for too long to be left out any more. If there were doubts over his consistency or adaptability, they have been answered. Now is his chance to prove it to the man who counts.
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