James Maddison’s action-hero energy is the perfect fit for Ange-era Spurs

<span>Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Shortly before kick-off here, James Maddison announced on Sky Sports that this was a bad time to play Spurs. Arsenal, Maddison explained with a patient smile, would be regretting the timing of this north London derby, would in effect already be afraid, already losing that small but significant battle. So, like, that’s just the way it is.

Even better, Maddison explained all this while sitting in a private box decorated with a bespoke Maddison mural featuring assorted Maddison mottos and Maddison logos plus a huge picture of his own dog. “Yeah, they said you can decorate it how you want,” he explained. “My question was, where’s the line …?”

Related: Son Heung-min double hands Spurs share of derby spoils against Arsenal

Maddison pressed right up against that line here, across 80 minutes on the pitch when he was, once again, the spirit animal of this regeared Tottenham team: creative general, craftsman in tight spaces, designated irritant and, above all, a decisive source of attacking incision. Maddison provided the final pass for both Spurs goals in this game. Both were scored by Son Heung-min, further confirmation that Son, playing in an advanced central role, also has a new post-Harry significant footballing other.

Overall this was a thrilling north London derby: evenly fought, the points shared at 2-2, with Arsenal unlucky to lose Declan Rice at half‑time. But somehow it still felt like a Tottenham game. Arsenal took the lead twice but were twice pegged back. Spurs had more possession, more shots and more passes. At times Ange Postecoglou’s team looked alluringly fearless, indeed almost reckless in the way Destiny Udogie, for example, looked to dominate his flank – not carefully, or advisedly, but all the time, in every single active second of the game.

They were led by Maddison, the perfect bolt-on part for this new‑era team. Some people need to be shown how to express themselves, to be led into a space where they can feel confident. It’s a process.

Maddison, well, not so much. The phrase “main character energy” was popularised a while ago, to describe people who walk around assuming that in every situation they are the centre of this drama, the star, the close-up, that they always have top billing in every crowd scene.

Right now Maddison has action-hero-franchise energy. His name is above the credits. He’s being projected on to the Arc de Triomphe. He has four assists and two goals in six Premier League games, and is arguably the best attacking midfielder in the league outside of the self-contained plane on which Manchester City are operating.

This was also a game that turned on two very similar moments, one in each half, both involving you-know-who.

Sometimes football really does feel like a narrative just waiting for an outcome, a stroke of luck one way or the other. With 32 minutes gone and Arsenal 1-0 up thanks to Cristian Romero’s own goal, Maddison dithered near goal and was robbed by Gabriel Jesus, who ran in on goal and battered the ball over the bar with the game there to be killed.

With 55 minutes gone, in exactly the same channel, it was Maddison’s turn to rob Jorginho, who seemed in that moment bemused to find himself playing, of all things, a game of football. Maddison surged forward and played the perfect nudged pass to Son, who eased the ball into the far corner to make it 2-2.

It wasn’t exactly luck, or a sliding-doors moment. Maddison executed his skill much better, seemed to know the picture ahead of him, the physics of the pass, a man playing with his head up and his footballing third eye wide open. Operating at the forward point of a three-man midfield gives him space to roam; and it was from the left that Maddison had made Spurs’ first equaliser, gliding past Bukayo Saka a little too easily and crossing from the byline for Son to whip the ball into the net.

Postecoglou had put out the closest thing to an all-Ange starting XI here, with five players signed in the summer, plus some significant restored parts. There has been something of the proselytiser, the revivalist preacher about Tottenham’s manager. There he is, out there laying on hands, diffusing his healing energy.

Richarlison has been magicked back to life. Pape Sarr, who might not have recovered from that brutal half‑time subbing against Newcastle, is now a powerful, settled member of the midfield. Yves Bissouma was dominant here as the game wore on, a footballer who just has an aura, a calm, still centre.

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Son was excellent here too, hyper-mobile and also ruthless. He touched the ball once in the first 20 minutes.

His 12th touch was his second goal, to make it five in his past three games. There is no reason why Son can’t make a go of that advanced role with Maddison and Dejan Kulusevski buzzing close by.

But then, it is such early days for this Ange-era Spurs, a new iteration built on the hoof, a thing that might just as easily stick or fail from here. In Maddison they have the ideal armature around which to build, a footballer who has somehow always felt like a star looking for a stage.