James Maddison hovered around the right half-space during Leicester City’s match against Sheffield United, cutting off a passing lane to a centerback with the match tied 0-0 towards the end of the first-half. That slight movement forced Sheffield’s full-back to hesitate, allowing Ayoze Perez to strip the ball straight to Maddison’s stride. The 22-year-old took a touch before bending his pass with the outside of his right foot past a scrambling backline straight into Jamie Vardy’s path, who rode out the weight of the pass to take his goal first-time. Afterwards, Leicester City manager Brendan Rodgers observed how “there’s not too many players who can play that pass,” but also emphasized Maddison’s work without the ball as his distinguishing x-factor.
Rodgers spoke Maddison’s England call-up into existence last month, riding the momentum of Leicester’s quick start to the season that currently has them in third place in the Premier League. But more than Maddison’s talent, Rodgers referenced his character and work ethic, making sure to place those intangibles skills within the story of the current versatile, technically sound England team. Southgate obliged, calling Maddison up to senior side for the second time in his career. In speaking of his creativity from midfield, Leicester and soon-to-be international teammate Ben Chillwell added that England “don’t have too many players like him.”
Rodgers compared Maddison not to other #10’s, but to another young English talent he previously managed in Raheem Sterling. The comparison is odd in terms of style and positioning, with Sterling a winger who creates by cutting in with his dribble and Maddison more a traditional attacking midfielder with defense-splitting through-balls. Instead, the common thread is their positional versatility at a youthful age. And while the 22-year-old finished third in expected assists last season and ahead of David Silva and Christian Eriksen, there is still a question of where his old-school, attacking midfield sensibility fits into the modern game. In getting the most out of his creator, Rodgers said that he wanted to take Maddison out of the “floaty” #10 role and into a structured approach that moves him across all midfield positions.
Rodgers’ comments of how we perceive playmakers are revealing, as we often take a hands off approach to genius in throwing a #10 on the field without any instruction, letting them figure it out. Perhaps a less experienced manager would have given Maddison that freedom, but Rodgers has previously developed precocious young talents beginning with his days managing in Chelsea’s youth academy. The 46-year-old stress-tested Maddison by forcing him to work deeper in midfield and hone his soccer intelligence. Maddison seemed to appreciate the new responsibilities, saying that “you don’t want to become a one-trick pony.”
Even Southgate recognized the shift. When asked why he had not yet given Maddison his first senior cap, he said that England doesn’t play with a #10. But a creative #8 fits within a range of three-player midfields.
Rodgers was hired from Celtic last February to provide offensive spacing and structure. And despite coming up short on expectations at Liverpool, he did find creative ways to use Sterling to further his development. At Leicester, Rodgers has implemented his trademark three center midfielder formation, with Maddison moving back and forth between central and winger roles. Maddison’s youth coach at Coventry noted how during Leicester’s 1-1 draw against Chelsea earlier this season, the playmaker “put in a shift” on the left side during the first half before running the game from the middle in the second half. That two-way impact and positional versatility, complete with chance creation, is reminiscent of Bernardo Silva’s role with Manchester City.
But Maddison has been lucky in working with progressive, attack-minded managers throughout his career. How many talented playmakers have failed to live up to their potential due to a lack of positional and tactical structure? He was named Norwich City’s Player of the Season for the 2017-18 season, working under Daniel Farke. Though, according to Maddison, the most important thing Farke did to further his career was to put him on the bench. Maddison, who recalls getting as many minutes as he wanted since he was 16-years-old at Conventry, said that not playing shocked his system.
His development highlights the non-linear, under the surface work of the little details. Rodgers discussed how everyone can see Maddison’s passing ability, but it’s the subtle nuances - the positional versatility and off-ball work - that will turn a highlight reel player into an effective player for club and country. It’s a cliche to put down opposing opinions by saying how someone only scrolls through clips and doesn’t watch the game, but Maddison straddles both. His passes will go viral. Yet his off-ball work will also satisfy the analysts.
In emphasizing the system over the individual, Jurgen Klopp’s famous statement that “no playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counterpressing” remains a foundational methodology that seems to have no breaking point.
We keep writing our goodbyes to the playmaking position in poetic screeds, in this modern era where every player must have a function without the ball. Riquelme was the last playmaker. Or it might be River Plate’s Juan Fernando Quintero whose the last player carrying the torch for the past. Though Maddison’s development creates an interesting opening and a potential bridging of the gap in which that artistry can adapt and survive in the modern, high-pressing game. Perhaps it’s a role that doesn’t stay static through the middle, but is able to create chances through the middle and from wide. Optimistically, maybe we’re not losing playmakers so much as developing a well-rounded player. And while modern sides are no longer built around one playmaking genius, we can recontextualize tactics as creating a larger structure in which those creators can define a role and thrive.
Maddison remains ambitious. With the England call-up, a first cap on the horizon, and Rodgers’ praise, it was only a matter of time before links to bigger clubs appeared. With rumors to Manchester United in the air, Maddison said that he wants to play at the highest level of his talent. That same versatility drilled by Rodgers also creates a sense of inevitability in the transfer market for Leicester. Like Southgate said, he could previously play one role that may or may not exist within certain sides, limiting his options. Now, he can play in any position across midfield, seemingly for any team, and create chances all the same.