Drifting out to the left of midfield at Etihad Stadium, James Maddison holds his run. He checks his surroundings and knows he’s in space, before collecting the ball and heading towards goal.
The Manchester City defenders back away in fear, already shell-shocked at seeing their early lead dissipate after conceding three goals either side of half time. But they were only inviting more misery. Maddison closes in, opens up his body and curls a sumptuous shot past a helpless Ederson.
It was 27 September, 2020, and Leicester inflicted a 5-2 defeat on Pep Guardiola, his worst at home since arriving in the Premier League.
Jamie Vardy had scored a hat-trick, but Maddison’s goal – his first since January that year – had everyone talking. Alongside Jack Grealish and Phil Foden, he was in the conversation for a playmaking spot in England’s Euro 2020 squad.
Since then, things have changed. The 24-year-old’s form has become less consistent, and he was hampered badly by a hip injury, which disrupted his run in to the summer. Leicester won the FA Cup, beating Chelsea 1-0 in the final, but Maddison’s fitness restricted him to a cameo appearance at Wembley.
Injuries weren’t the only issue; the harsh reality was he’d fallen behind Grealish and Foden considerably by the end of the season. The Foxes’ failure to secure a Champions League spot – despite sitting in the top four for most of the campaign – was a damaging blow. When Gareth Southgate named his England squad for the Euros and Maddison wasn’t in it, there was no ripple of opposition. It was the same on Thursday when he was omitted from the 25-man party for next month’s World Cup qualifiers.
‘Grealish is miles ahead of him’
While Foden was often seen as a string to the attacking bow at City, Maddison and Grealish, who has since moved to the Premier League champions from Aston Villa, were viewed as the chief creative forces in their respective teams.
According to Opta, Maddison’s output was not just lagging behind both prospective England rivals, but also his own performances from two seasons prior. Despite playing only five fewer league games than he did in 2018-19, he created 51 chances for his team-mates last season compared to 100 during that campaign. His dribble completion dropped from 61.7% to 54.7 as his attempts decreased from 88 dribbles to 55.
Foden scored nine goals and registered five assists in 17 Premier League starts in 2020-21; Maddison scored one fewer but supplied the same amount of assists having started seven more matches. Grealish scored six and created the most goals (10) and chances (81), despite making just 26 league appearances, the fewest of the three of them.
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Monday Night Club show on 9 August, Premier League winner Chris Sutton was scathing of Maddison’s form.
“I thought he had a really poor season by his standards and I thought he let Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers down,” Sutton said. “There was a game towards the end of the season at West Ham where he was out partying; he wasn’t the only one.
“Leicester ended up losing that game and they fell out of a Champions League place. Essentially I think that game may have been a catalyst. I don’t think Brendan was totally convinced by Maddison last season.
“There is no doubt Maddison was in front of Grealish at one stage, but all of a sudden Grealish has leapfrogged Maddison and he is miles ahead of him.
“Grealish was a ‘Jack the lad’ a couple of seasons ago, but he’s knuckled down and he’s been totally professional.
“When you look on the flip side of that, Maddison needs to up his game. Look at what Gareth Southgate has thought of him with the England squad. He could have been part of the squad for the Euros. He wasn’t and there are reasons for that.
“This is a big season for James Maddison. We know he has the talent, he has to go out and prove it, and pay Brendan Rodgers back.”
‘Injuries have curtailed his progress’
Grealish made the move to City for £100m after becoming one of the faces of England’s journey to the final of Euro 2020, despite starting most of the games on the bench. Maddison has been linked with Arsenal this summer, but nothing has emerged and, over the weekend, Rodgers dismissed the story as “gossip”.
Following Leicester’s second Wembley victory in a matter of months, over Manchester City in the Community Shield earlier this month, Rodgers admitted Grealish may have pulled away from Maddison, but backed his player to bounce back from a difficult spell in his career.
“I think they are both close, they are both very talented players,” said Rodgers. “But it’s been unfortunate for James; he suffered from a number of injuries which have curtailed his progress.
“This will be a big year for him, trying to maintain that fitness. You need a little bit of luck with that as well.
“But you saw how hard he is working for the team. You see his quality and how he takes the ball, his eye for the last pass.
“He is a wonderful talent. All he can do is play to the highest level consistently for Leicester and see where it takes him.”
‘Whatever has come at him, he takes it in his stride and deals with it’
Setbacks have never been in short supply for Maddison but crucially neither is self-confidence. Like many in his generation, elite football has not come easy for him.
His career began at his hometown club, Coventry City, where he made his debut aged 17, before a switch to Norwich City, and then, via a short loan spell in Scotland with Aberdeen, Leicester. He has put in the hard yards.
Richard Stevens knows Maddison better than most, having coached him as a boy in the Coventry academy. He now manages the youth setup at West Bromwich Albion, but keeps in touch with his former player and watches his progress.
“He’s never not been the best trainer,” Stevens tells BBC Sport. “He’s always been driven, but his ability has been something he’s worked on since his younger years; five, six or seven years of age.
“Some of the smaller hurdles he has had in his career have shaped the person he is today. He’s playing in a top six Premier League team and has been for two years. The injuries he’s picked up have come at a bad time; they’ve set him back from being in contention for that England group in the summer.”
Even though he had to wait to develop physically, Stevens says Maddison’s personality was a great leveller. He has always been at the centre of everything.
“Whatever he was at 11, he still is now at 24,” Stevens continues. “Compared to his team-mates, he was tiny, but his character was as big as every other one of them and more. He was in a really good group; they were competitive, and really tough on each other. Six of them actually played for Coventry’s first team, and that is a big deal for an academy.
“They set the standard, and James was in the middle of it all. He was the ringleader and the voice; he demanded everything go through him, but he was a team player.”
If ever there were a test of Maddison’s mental strength, it came as a teenager, when Stevens held back on offering him a scholarship contract at Coventry. Doubts could have festered and grown, but it was his inner confidence which impressed the coach, and the reason he believes Maddison can get himself back on track this season.
“James was one of the last few I offered a contract to in his age group,” Stevens laughs. “I wanted to make him wait, because I knew he was hungry for it. There was never any doubt I would give him one. To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking!
“In the market today, you have to show your hand; you can’t play that game, like I did with James. He knew he was getting a contract, his family were really supportive.
“He was an unbelievable talent, but you don’t know what football does. There weren’t lots of young players playing at first-team level then. It was hard to gauge how far he was going to go, but once he hit the levels he did as a 17-year-old, you knew he was going to set his own boundaries.
“Whatever has come at him, he takes it in his stride and deals with it. He has an unbelievable resilience. He has a skill and a mentality where he can always hit that next level.
“There’s an assuredness about him. It isn’t cockiness. He’s just understanding that he’s got the tools to succeed. You see that in the way he plays. Give him the ball anywhere on the pitch, and he’ll try and make something happen.”
Maddison must improve if he is to regain his upward trajectory. He showed his quality with that goal at Manchester City last year, and he’ll believe he can come back stronger than ever.
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