James Maddison’s full England debut assessed: Does he offer something unique?

James Maddison may have had to wait over three years for his second England cap, but his performance against Ukraine as he made his full debut yesterday should ensure he won’t wait as long for his third.

Many people have been scratching their heads as to why England manager Gareth Southgate had been so reluctant to give Maddison another go after his substitute appearance against Montenegro in November 2019. His performances for Leicester City over the past two seasons prompted a clamour for his inclusion in the World Cup squad last year, only for an injury to curtail his chances of making an appearance once selected.

Southgate always said Maddison’s absence was because of the national team’s abundance of talent in attacking positions and because Maddison was a No 10, which didn’t fit England’s system. However, Leicester fans who watch Maddison regularly know he can play a number of roles.

He proved this when England beat Ukraine 2-0 at Wembley on Sunday, being chosen ahead of his friend Jack Grealish for the left-sided role in the attack, despite not being an orthodox wide player. Southgate knew that wouldn’t shackle him, though. “We wanted James to start on the left as a reference, nothing else,” he said. “He wants to come and drift in, and he found those spaces really well.”

Maddison was constantly looking to be involved in the play, showing his ability to turn when Ukraine offered him room to do so, but also using his close control and sudden changes of direction to break away when put under pressure. From the opening minutes, he was drifting into those pockets of space where he can make an impact.

Here, Maddison comes inside, creating an area for left-back Ben Chilwell to advance into…

…but instead Chilwell finds Maddison inside, who turns and plays a through ball for Harry Kane, only for him to be flagged offside.

It was an early warning for the Ukrainians not to allow Maddison that kind of room, but he repeatedly found such pockets in the first half. Here he is offering a passing option out of defence for John Stones…

There were even a couple of Cruyff turns to help him evade his markers.

It was a fluid England system that complemented two of Maddison’s team-mates in particular: Jude Bellingham and former Leicester team-mate Chilwell. The latter is a close friend of Maddison’s and knows his game inside out from their two seasons together at the King Power Stadium.

When Maddison found those pockets, often in deep positions, it gave Bellingham the opportunity to use his box-to-box instincts to break into the areas the 26-year-old had vacated.

Chilwell offered England width off the left, even cropping up at the back post with Maddison in the first half to overload the Ukrainian full-back Oleksandr Karavaev as Jordan Henderson delivered a cross.

On this occasion, Maddison’s header was comfortably saved, but he carried a goal threat, as you would expect from a player who is outperforming his expected goals (xG) number this season.

In fact, according to website FBref, Maddison is ninth on the list of players out-performing their non-penalty expected goals (npxG) in Europe’s big five leagues in 2022-23. His nine league goals scored with an npxG of 4.2 (an overperformance of +4.8) means he is rubbing shoulders in the metric’s top 10 with Neymar, Kane and Erling Haaland.

Maddison had three efforts on goal during his 85 minutes on the pitch in Sunday’s match, including one he created himself with his trademark quick feet, again Cruyff-turning to escape his defender.

He then powers into the box but flashes his shot wide.

Just before he was replaced with Grealish, Maddison had another opportunity as he broke into the box to collect Bukayo Saka’s pass.

His touch, however, was heavy.

He then seemed to blame Saka for delaying the pass.

One aspect of Maddison’s game, developed over the past couple of seasons under Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers, is his defensive work. In an England shirt yesterday, he showed his willingness to press and a desire to get back and support Chilwell on the rare occasions when Ukraine did come forward.

Here he is, helping Chilwell double up on Karavaev:

Ukraine tried to get closer to Maddison in the second half, but his ability to manoeuvre away at speed when defenders got too tight meant he was still as effective.

Here in the 84th minute, he is immediately closed down by two opponents.

Despite this, he turns out of trouble and runs directly at the Ukrainian back line.

In the example below, he controls a header out of defence by Harry Maguire and, on the turn, slips away from Oleksandr Zinchenko.

Now away from pressure and the opposition backpedalling, he carries the ball into the final third to get England up the pitch.

England dominated possession (58 per cent) with Maddison heavily involved, having 57 touches in total.

It was his passing ability that stood out in his performance: Maddison made 38 passes, with 34 of them being accurate, and completed five key passes (defined as the final pass leading to a shot at goal by a team-mate), which was the highest tally by any England player.

As full debuts went, it couldn’t have gone much better for the Leicester playmaker, who has taken a huge step towards establishing himself in Southgate’s squad for years to come.

As shown against Ukraine, Maddison offers the national team something unique.

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