PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2020 — JAMES MADDISON

The England national team has rarely known a time where it was blessed with such a vast pool of young and exciting attacking players. Intelligently guided by Gareth Southgate, they are fast building an identity and looking set to achieve great things in years to come, yet some feel that they have so far lacked a playmaker. James Maddison is a prime candidate to fill that void.

In a short career that has followed a sharp upward trajectory, Maddison is well on his way to proving himself as one of the best and most consistent technical players in the Premier League. Into his second season at Leicester City, his stock has risen year on year, which suggests that an excellent 2019 will make way for an even more prosperous 2020.

Leicester are a side widely tipped to challenge for a coveted place in the Premier League’s top six this season, and that’s down in no small part to the 22-year-old. The extent of his passing range, combined with the ability to link the play and produce quality from dead-ball situations, is among the key forces driving the Foxes. In a squad that is full of promise in all areas of the pitch, he is one of the standout figures.

The statistics emphatically back it up. In his first top-flight season, he created more goalscoring chances than any other player, an achievement made even more remarkable by the standard of the competition across the League. In particular, he struck up a hugely successful partnership with striker Jamie Vardy, who has thrived on Maddison’s service to rank as one of the leading scorers of 2019.

When they get it right, the understanding between Maddison and Vardy is one of the strongest and most clinical in the Premier League, perhaps reminiscent of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres for Liverpool a decade ago. He has wasted little time in building a good reputation at the top level.

This level of impact proves beyond all doubt that he’s living up to the potential he showed while coming through the academy system at Coventry City, where he followed in the footsteps of Bournemouth striker and fellow England hopeful Callum Wilson.

He made his debut for the Sky Blues in August 2014 at the age of 17, and two months later scored his first professional goal. Despite occasionally struggling with injury, Maddison’s form was attracting attention from a number of other clubs and in January 2016, he was signed by Norwich City for an undisclosed fee.

After being loaned straight back to Coventry for the remainder of the 2015-16 season, the dynamic midfielder spent the first half of the following campaign in Scotland with Aberdeen. This was a critical period in his development and he impressed throughout, producing memorable moments including a dramatic free-kick winner against Rangers.

All of this meant that it took until April 2017 for him to be given a first League appearance by Norwich, marking a late substitute appearance with a goal away to Preston North End. Up until then he’d been given few opportunities by the Canaries to showcase his talent, but everything changed that summer when Daniel Farke was appointed as their new manager.

The German soon made Maddison the focal point of his team and he responded in spectacular style, taking the Championship by storm with a series of outstanding performances. Norwich rarely ventured beyond mid-table in 2017-18, but hardly a week went by without Maddison scoring an eye-catching goal or providing a sumptuous assist. For a player with such limited experience, he was a revelation and was deservedly named in the division’s Team of the Year.

Just one season in the Norwich first team was enough to suggest he was ready for a move to the Premier League. A record of 15 goals and 11 assists in all competitions sparked a race for his signature and Leicester came out on top for a fee of £20m. He was named in the starting XI for their opening game of 2018-19 at Manchester United, and immediately held down his place as a key member of the side.

After a goal on his home debut, more soon followed including a spectacular free-kick against Huddersfield Town, and with the exception of a second yellow card for diving at Brighton, he made a fine all-round contribution. Despite this, he could not prevent the team from a run of inconsistent results and uninspiring home performances which ultimately led to the dismissal of manager Claude Puel.

The arrival of Rodgers in March to replace Puel has given Maddison an even greater lease of life, with the former Liverpool boss favouring creative freedom as he aims to propel the club back into Europe. For a player like Maddison, that is a dream scenario. Leicester’s attack-minded, high-tempo style is perfectly suited to his talents, and his influence in the side is only increasing as a result.

A strong start to this season included two assists in the opening three Premier League games, and then a superb long range winner against Tottenham in a match that emphasised Leicester’s top six credentials. The challenge now will be to keep improving, and keep producing this level of quality, and if he can do that he stands a good chance of achieving his objectives for club and country.

It’s taken slightly longer for him to force his way into international football. After earning his first cap in 2017, he went on to represent England at the European Under-21 Championships last summer, where despite scoring once, the team underperformed and crashed out at the group stage with just a single point. That was an opportunity he failed to grasp, and moreover he was overshadowed by Manchester City’s Phil Foden.

But the reaction since then has been outstanding, and the signs are that given the right attitude and level of application, he stands a great chance of holding down a place in the England team in the years to come. Foden will surely be a key player in the long-term, but the way forward for Maddison to be the man in behind captain Harry Kane in Gareth Southgate’s 4-2-3-1 system will be decided by how well he compares to a whole host of other players who are competing for the same spot.

His main rival for the position is currently Ross Barkley. The Chelsea midfielder has been first-choice for England throughout 2019 and has proved effective, but lacks the all-round technical prowess of Maddison. Mason Mount has shown considerable promise and was given his first cap in September, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will also come back into the reckoning having returned from a long-term injury.

It will be a fierce, long-running battle, but with Euro 2020 on the horizon Maddison will do everything he can to ensure that his desire and unwavering confidence in his own ability shine through as he looks to play a key part in a side seeking to go all the way. With the incentive of the final being at Wembley, the next calendar year carries a great many possibilities.

For now however, his main focus and more realistic aims are at Leicester. Everything is in place at the King Power Stadium for Maddison to continue impressing, and in Rodgers he has an ideal manager to guide him. One area he can improve is getting into more scoring positions in open play, but at this stage of his career there are many greater heights potentially within reach.

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