The Premier League is a daunting landscape for any footballer new to the division, whether they’re young, old, homegrown or from overseas.
And it goes beyond just the quality and strength in depth of sides; there’s the global attention and the scrutiny that comes with it, plus the demands on clubs to succeed, whether it be finishing first or 17th, which can be suffocating.
However talented a young player may be, dealing with that intense environment is as much a challenge mentally, as it is transferring their skills to the English top flight.
But for some that pressure can be energising and, ultimately, can make an individual raise their game to new heights
James Maddison is one such player. The Leicester City No.10 has made just six top-flight appearances after only one full season as a professional in the Championship with Norwich City behind him. Yet he looks a natural in the Premier League, both in skillset and temperament.
He’s made such a seamless transition from second-tier prospect to key player for a top ten side, it’s easy to forget the situation and context in which he made his debut for the Foxes: at Old Trafford, opening game of a new season, against international midfielders Fred and Paul Pogba, with a £20million price-tag and the status of being the creative replacement for Riyad Mahrez.
Yet, during the 63 minutes he was on the pitch Maddison was the best midfielder in the game. And his impact was even more noticeable when he was substituted as Manchester United were then able to take control of the match.
Those who know Maddison have said he’s always exuded the confidence of a Premier League player. And although the Championship has been a traditional location for top-flight clubs to mine, if there was an aspect of his game he wasn’t lacking it was in self-belief. He was going to get to the promised land eventually.
That’s all well and good but the application of that mental strength in tandem with his technique has been one of the most impressive stories of this embryonic season.
“We all watch football, we all appreciate talent when we see it and he’s got great talent. And his set-pieces which people aren’t speaking about [are excellent],” said Deeney.
“He’s got an eye for goal and his work-rate has been touched on. He’s a player that we all look back at and say, ‘He could be some player, this guy.’”
In 481 minutes of Premier League action, Maddison has three goals and an assist; he’s directly involved in a goal every 120 minutes. That’s better than Sadio Mané (130.5), Mohamed Salah (129.5) and Harry Kane (134.5) – three of the Premier League’s best attacking players.
Of course, he’s unlikely to continue such a ratio but it illustrates just what a fine start he’s had and why the obvious next conversation is England.
Maddison has emerged at a time where, for all the success the Three Lions enjoyed at the World Cup, their elimination exposed an overriding flaw in the team: a lack of midfield creativity.
The fundamental absent element of their play in Russia was the ability to fashion chances and have an individual – or individuals – who could hold onto the ball and alter the overall tempo of the game.
Fortunately, Maddison is one name among a host of talented young English playmakers emerging, but unlike Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Mason Mount or Phil Foden, he is starting regularly for a top-flight side in England.
And it’s that freedom Claude Puel has afforded him that has proven integral to his adaptation to the Premier League. Maddison has been given the responsibility of being Leicester’s main creator but also with an acceptance that it won’t go right all of the time.
The Foxes are in a position where they can do this. There isn’t as much pressure on them game-to-game as, say, at Manchester City with Foden. But credit to Puel as he has entrusted Maddison with the keys to his side.
What marks Maddison out as a special talent, certainly in the context of the English game, is the way he plays.
Upon receiving possession he naturally rolls his body into an immediate attacking position. I means the pitch opens up for him and of his 39.66 accurate passes per 90 minutes, 14.59 are forward (36.7 per cent).
He takes care of the ball and has a natural elegance and glide to the way he dribbles. His fearlessness to always present himself as a passing option, demanding the ball and happy to receive in tight spaces under attention from defenders, is also an indicator of his confidence.
His awareness of teammates and the opposition is excellent and he is a very good judge of the overall pace of the game. His passing accuracy of 84.4 per cent isn’t particularly high for such a skilled player but he’s operating in congested areas. While he may surrender the ball on occasion, he rarely takes the wrong option.
However, as comfortable as Maddison has looked and impressive an impact as he’s made, he is still lacking the overall production to truly elevate himself into one of the league’s best playmakers.
He ranks only 39th among Premier League attackers for open play key passes per 90 (1.12), 25th for big chances created (0.37) and 58th for expected assists (0.09).
He’s 37th for xG (0.34) and 34th for scoring attempts (2.61) – in short, that goal or assist every 120 minutes simply isn’t sustainable.
For Maddison to be a truly impactful No.10 over the course of a Premier League season, those numbers have to improve.
However, he’s just turned 21 and, for all his comfort in the top flight, is inexperienced against the very best.
So while he may look the part and generate understandable optimism and excitement, he not the answer to England’s midfield problems… yet.