There was good reason to believe James Maddison would carry his impressive early-season form for Tottenham Hotspur into England’s Euro 2024 qualifier against Ukraine. Indeed, Gareth Southgate’s decision to start the 26-year-old reflected this. In Wroclaw, though, Maddison struggled to make much of an impression.
It wasn’t just Maddison who failed to catch the eye against Ukraine. England were underwhelming as a whole as they lost their perfect record in Euro 2024 qualification with a 1-1 draw. The Three Lions lacked creativity and cutting edge in front of goal with Gareth Southgate’s management once again under the microscope.
Southgate has settled on a front three of Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Maddison with the trio starting three of England’s four Euro 2024 qualifiers. All three have started the 2023/24 season at club level in good form and have the talent to give the Three Lions good balance in the final third of the pitch.
Under Southgate, though, Maddison will never thrive as an England player. While Kane is the country’s all-time top scorer and Saka has 11 goals in just 29 games for England, Maddison looks to be a stylistic misfit for a national team without a role for a midfield creator like him. He is the odd one out in England’s frontline.
Of course, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Phil Foden possesses a similar skill set to Maddison and while he is proven at the elite level of the club game for Manchester City, he too has struggled to translate this into consistent form for England. Many believed he should have played a more important role at the 2022 World Cup.
Ideologically, Southgate is a conservative manager. He doesn’t take many risks and generally plays it safe with his midfield selections, demonstrated by his decision to start Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice alongside Jude Bellingham against Ukraine when one of the former two surely would have sufficed.
The deployment of Bellingham and Rice as a double pivot would have allowed Maddison to slot into the space between the midfield and attack where he is so effective for Tottenham Hotspur. The shift into a 4-2-3-1 shape would have also permitted Southgate to field Marcus Rashford on the left wing.
While Southgate has enjoyed success as England manager, there is a sense the Three Lions have now outgrown him. Initially, he did a good job of galvanising the dressing room and making the England camp a healthy environment, but that might not be enough for Southgate to take a team all the way at a major tournament.
International managers don’t always have time to implement intricate tactical ideas, but England could certainly afford to play more on the front foot. The strength in the England squad lies in the attacking areas and so Southgate should tailor his approach to get the best out of the players who can make the difference in the final third, of which Maddison is one.
There’s less than a year until Euro 2024 starts with England all but certain to qualify for the tournament. Southgate’s team will be among the favourites to go all the way in Germany after coming within a penalty shootout of winning Euro 2020, but several questions must be answered before next summer.
Foden and Maddison are the type of players who could separate England from the rest. Not many countries boast natural creators like them. They could be the ones that make the difference at Euro 2024. Southgate, however, doesn’t see it that way and England could end up paying the price for that.