You may not think that the current England lineup needs much improvement. Gareth Southgate’s young side have qualified for the forthcoming Euro 2020 tournament at a canter and never looked in any danger of failing to do so. The team is vibrant, positive, and arguably more exciting to watch than any England side in living memory. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve made fans fall back in love with the team. They may not have won the World Cup in 2018, but their against-the-odds journey to the semi-finals sparked a passion among supporters that had been missing for some time.
It’s fair to say that fans of the team didn’t expect much from Gareth Southgate when he took over the managerial role in the aftermath of Sam Allardyce’s disgraced departure after a single game in 2016. Southgate’s career as a manager at club level hadn’t exactly set the world on fire, and confidence in the players and their prospects was at an all-time low. Defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 had been an embarrassment, coming after years of miserable failures. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ of Ferdinand, Terry, Lampard, Beckham, Gerrard, and Rooney hadn’t delivered a single trophy. Worse than that, they appeared to be going backward. With Southgate at the helm, everything suddenly changed.
The likable waistcoat-wearing manager didn’t instantly do away with all the players over 30, but he made a conscious effort to include younger, hungrier players with a point to prove. Appointing Harry Kane as captain seemed questionable at the time, but it’s paid dividends. Everyone thought Trent Alexander-Arnold was too young when Southgate called him up, but he’s matured into one of the best right-backs in the world. Raheem Sterling, once seen as a player incapable of replicating his club form at international level, has developed to the point where he’s England’s best player and biggest goal threat. Southgate doesn’t force players to wait if he believes they deserve a chance. As Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount have discovered this season, if you’re good enough to break into the first team with a Premier League club, you’re good enough to represent your country.
There is, however, one player who everybody seems to agree is an outstanding talent, and yet arguably hasn’t had the chance he deserves. That’s Leicester City’s James Maddison. Leicester is on a tear this season, battling away in the top four of the Premier League with a team that looks more threatening and dynamic than the side that won the competition in 2016. An on-fire James Vardy is hitting the headlines with his goalscoring antics, but it’s Maddison in midfield who keeps the side ticking. Eyebrows were raised when then-managed Claude Puel paid £20m to sign him from Norwich City in the summer of 2018. With the benefit of hindsight, it may be the one thing that the unpopular manager got right during his underachieving time at the club.
Maddison, with his pace, eye for a great pass, and goalscoring ability is showing the potential to be one of the best ‘complete midfielders’ in the Premier League, or at least one of the best English midfielders. He has no obvious weaknesses on the pitch, and at 22, he has time on his side. He may prove to be the solution to a problem that England don’t necessarily know that they have, and that’s the fact that their midfield isn’t as sharp as the rest of their squad.
Clobbering minnows like Montenegro by big scores on the way to qualification has allowed England to gloss over some of their deficiencies – deficiencies which are exposed when they come up against better-quality opposition. We saw it in that World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia. We also saw it in the 2-1 defeat away to the Czech Republic – the only blemish on an otherwise-perfect qualification campaign. England has pace and power going forward, and they’re solid at the back. The question of who should partner Harry Maguire in central defense has yet to be answered, but Maguire, Alexander-Arnold, and Chilwell are all solid picks who should, fitness and form permitting, be there for the next two to three international tournaments. It’s midfield where there may be an issue.
You may be wondering what we mean by that when Sterling and Sancho are technically midfielders, but they shouldn’t be counted as such. Both are forward players who won’t (and shouldn’t) be expected to do the dirty work. Jordan Henderson fills that role, but at 29 may not be around for the next World Cup. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fitness is a worry. Mason Mount is still developing, as is Declan Rice. Maddison appears to be the better prospect to play in front of Henderson, but thus far only has one cap to his name – as a late substitute against Montenegro.
Part of this may be Southgate trying to prove a point. Just as he dropped Raheem Sterling for his part in a fracas with Joe Gomez during an England camp, he spoke out against Maddison’s behavior when the player was spotted at a casino after being ruled out of the game against the Czech Republic through illness. Southgate tows a firm line on discipline, and his view was that a player who isn’t well enough to play also isn’t well enough to go out on the town. Maddison is 22 years old. He’s apologized for his error, and he’ll learn from it. Between now and Euro 2020, it would be great to see him given a chance to make the central midfield position his own.
We applaud Southgate for keeping his players in line, but at the same time, very few of us would be able to put our hands up and say we didn’t make poor decisions during our early 20s – especially when alcohol is involved. If Maddison gets the itch to go gambling in the future, he’d be better off playing mobile slots on website like Amigo Slots. As far as we know, Southgate hasn’t banned mobile phones at training camps, and so Maddison would be able to play mobile slots to his heart’s content in the privacy of his own room. People don’t tend to take photos of you if they see you playing mobile slots, and so his habits wouldn’t make the newspapers.
This England team is good and has the potential to be great. James Maddison could be the player who helps to take them to the next level. If he does, winning Euro 2020 isn’t out of the question.