James Maddison is rapidly becoming one of my favourite Premier League footballers; he plays and speaks like he is from a bygone era.
There is a cheeky charm to Maddison on and off the pitch – a maverick who puts you in mind of 1970 icons Rodney Marsh or Frank Worthington. He wants to entertain with the ball and has no filter when asked for opinions. You cannot be sure if he is talking about the game or recreating a scene from The Inbetweeners.
“When I go for a roast dinner with my family, I like to be the main man,” was a typically funny comment earlier this season, as was last weekend’s breakdown of Bukayo Saka’s attempt to match his goal celebration by miming playing darts.
“He must have still been doing it when I turned him for the first goal. His action was terrible,” said Maddison
When he referred to ‘Daniel’ on the day he was unveiled following his £45 million signing from Leicester City, I wasn’t sure if he was talking about his new boss Daniel Levy or his mate from the pub.
Given some of Maddison’s recent comments, you could be forgiven for thinking he has been at Spurs for six years rather than six games.
After Tottenham’s excellent 2-2 draw with Arsenal, he said this.
“Fans and neutrals talk about Tottenham, they often say ‘soft, weak, bottle it, Spursy’, all that is rubbish. I think the last couple of weeks shows we might be going in a slightly different direction.”
You’d think he was a veteran who had played through an era of underachievement, not a new arrival who had just taken Harry Kane’s jersey. The fact he was prepared to take the weight of the number 10 shirt is further proof of Maddison’s self-belief.
The modern game has too many players who think media training means removing a trace of personality, their idea of the perfect TV or newspaper interview being to give nothing away for fear of a negative headline.
How refreshing that a top player like Maddison has a ‘what you see is what you get’ approach. He probably has PR executives sweating every time he speaks. Manchester City’s Jack Grealish is cut from the same cloth. We should cherish and celebrate such individuals, their comments taken in the spirit intended.
We will certainly need a larger sample size before backing Maddison’s declarations about Spurs’ ‘soft’ days being over. Saturday’s visit of Liverpool is their latest test after looking the part at Arsenal last weekend. They have made a hugely encouraging start under a new manager and Maddison has been fundamental to their makeover.
His throwback style extends to his on-field role. With the utmost respect to Maddison and Spurs, it explains why his options during the summer did not include Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool.
I have no doubt all watched him for Leicester and at some point over the last three years considered signing him. The reason they said no is because Maddison’s most effective position is unfashionable for elite coaches.
Maddison excels most as an out-and-out number 10. Over the last six years - or certainly since Pep Guardiola’s 4-3-3 began dominating world football – such players are an endangered species.
There was a time when every creative player fancied themselves as the number 10. It became such a coveted role, I would roll my eyes every time a teammate said it was their preferred position as they felt frustrated being stuck out wide, denied the chance to run the game.
Now the position is perceived as a luxury, typified recently by someone such as Mesut Ozil who for all his skill gave the impression the hardest yards had to be run by ball-winning midfielders while he racked up the assists.
Jurgen Klopp inherited a number 10 in Philippe Coutinho, but it was only after the Brazilian left Anfield that the team became more balanced and Liverpool won the biggest trophies.
My suspicion is that Guardiola, Klopp, Mikel Arteta and Mauricio Pochettino took a look at Maddison and were swayed more by what he does not do more than his qualities.
In their best sides, Guardiola and Klopp expect multi-faceted attacking players or midfielders to assume the responsibility of those who once placed themselves just behind the main striker.
Maddison is not the quickest, nor does he stand-out as someone who will trigger a high-pressing game. He does not have the natural athleticism of a number 8, and he is less effective playing as a wide attacker cutting inside.
He shines knitting midfield and attack, deceptively quick in possession and technically superb at quickly seeing and delivering a defence-splitting pass.
In a period of transition at a club in dire need of a spark after the sale of Kane, Spurs emerged as the perfect club at the right time under the ideal manager. Credit must be given to Ange Postecoglou for identifying how to maximise Maddison’s assets, encouraging him to sprinkle the creative dust while the coach gets a tune out of the players he has inherited.
For now, seeing a team playing front-footed and imaginative football is enough for the Spurs fans, the team’s excellent start beyond their expectation at the start of a new era. Maddison has become a symbol of the fans’ growing sense that they ‘have their Spurs back’.
Longer-term, it will be fascinating to see if Postecoglou considers Maddison so good he can build the team around his creativity, or if he feels he needs a tweak as there are obvious dangers in allowing too much to flow through one imaginative player, no matter how good his form.
Tactically, having a genuine number 10 can be a problem against the best opponents.
Gareth Southgate preferred Maddison as a number 8 in a 4-3-3 for England. To justify being indulged as a number 10 at the highest level, the number of goals and assists must be prolific.
So far, Maddison is delivering, his attacking numbers placing him near the top in all areas. No player has made more passes into the opposition penalty area, while only Erling Haaland has taken more shots on goal. With Liverpool still without a traditional number 6, there could be gaps for Maddison to exploit on Saturday.
For now, Maddison looks like the prototype Spurs player, following in the traditions of Paul Gascoigne and Glenn Hoddle – an individual who puts a smile on supporters’ faces.
Football is always more joyful when characters like Maddison see the game as an art more than a science. He is one of those rare footballers that the home fans adore and even rival fans cannot help but be endeared by.