England’s James Maddison gamble will backfire if given only a taste of World Cup

James Maddison was one of just three members of England’s 26-man World Cup squad to receive a phone call from Gareth Southgate ahead of yesterday’s big announcement.

Southgate, who also spoke to fitness concerns Kalvin Phillips and Kyle Walker, wanted to reassure Maddison he was in his plans for Qatar, after widespread reports suggesting the England manager would resist the clamour to call up the in-form Leicester playmaker.

Maddison need not have worried; Southgate made the decision to end the 25-year-old’s spell in the international wilderness two weeks ago, even before another eye-catching performance and two assists in Leicester’s win over Everton last weekend.

Maddison was Southgate’s most surprising inclusion, and surely one of the biggest calls of the manager’s six-year tenure. The usually-cautious Southgate tends to stick to what he knows, but in Maddison he has added a potential match-winner and intriguing element of the unknown to an otherwise familiar-looking squad.

“He has earned the right,” Southgate said. “We think he can give us something slightly different to the other attacking players we have got.”

Maddison’s ability is beyond question, but he has not played for England since winning his only cap in November 2019 and there was a feeling Southgate had concerns about his character after he was pictured in a casino on the night of a qualifier later that same year, having withdrawn from the squad due to illness.

“For me [the casino visit] wasn’t the drama that it seemed to be for everybody else,” said Southgate, who also made a point of praising the way Maddison has spoken about England during his time in exile.

“He is a bit of a football student, James. There are misconceptions, perhaps, about him. I’ve always said it was football reasons for not selecting him and in the main the capabilities of others in the group and that’s the case. I’ve got no concerns about how he will be with the group.”

Maddison’s ability to fit in on the pitch has also been questioned, and Southgate acknowledged that his set-up has rarely accommodated a “No10 type”.

The manager largely used a 3-4-3 in qualifying, leading to criticism that he was not making the most of the attacking talent at his disposal, but Maddison’s inclusion raises the possibility that England could play a more front-foot 4-2-3-1 in Qatar, with three attackers behind Harry Kane.

The vast majority of fans would prefer England to play a more expansive, attacking game, and Maddison should prove an immediate PR win for Southgate, whose relationship with supporters was strained during this season’s Nations League campaign.

Gareth Southgate decided to pick James Maddison two weeks ago. (Action Images via Reuters)
Gareth Southgate decided to pick James Maddison two weeks ago. (Action Images via Reuters)

The decision is not without risk, however, and there is a danger that Southgate has created a rod for his own back. If Maddison does not feature significantly in Qatar — a real possibility, given Southgate’s more experienced options — he could easily become a stick with which to beat the 52-year-old, just as Jack Grealish was at Euro 2020.

If Southgate sticks with his 3-4-3 formation, Maddison will be jostling for minutes with Grealish, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Mason Mount and Phil Foden, with just two spots available alongside Kane.

Asked if Maddison could expect to break into the starting XI in Qatar, Southgate added: “Why not? Why would any of the 26 arrive next week thinking they haven’t got a chance of getting in?”

A leading criticism of Southgate’s tenure is that he has not always appeared to know how to get the best from England’s forward players.

In picking Maddison, Southgate has given himself yet another exciting option in the final third — but now he is under pressure to make them sing.