The Tottenham rebuild is starting to take shape. And it is clear with the signing of James Maddison what Ange Postecoglou hopes to do.
Ange-ball is the name of the game in N17 and one of the main tasks for the new Tottenham manager is to change his team’s central midfield from a two to a three. While Antonio Conte wanted a two-man midfield of all-round, ball-winning workhorses who would run themselves into the ground off the ball and protect the back three, Postecoglou only plays with a three in the middle of the park. That leaves a little more room for what you might call a ‘luxury’ player in midfield than Conte could ever have.
Maddison is of course not a luxury player. Funnily enough, the phrase ‘all-round, ball-winning workhorse’ is in some ways a pretty good description of him. It’s only inaccurate because his ball-winning and work-rate aren’t the aspects of his game that he’s best known for. He works hard and wins the ball back a decent amount – he ranked in the top 25 in the top flight last season for possession recoveries in the attacking third for teams that finished in the bottom half of the table – but it is in possession that Maddison thrives. Playing him in a two would be asking too much of him out of possession and sacrificing too much of his play on the ball. Early in his Leicester career, Claude Puel briefly played Maddison as a deep-lying midfielder, but quickly changed his mind after seeing how effective he is further up the pitch.
He is most comfortable as a number 10, playing with freedom to move around the attacking part of the pitch and being given the responsibility of being the main creative force for his team. However, like many creative 10s before him, he has proved excellently able to transition to a number eight in a 4-3-3.
That is likely to be the position Maddison will play in Postecoglou’s system, although he will also be a very good option in the front three, where he spent much of last season for Leicester. Dejan Kulusevski has been Tottenham’s main creator (along with Harry Kane, who is obviously needed higher up the pitch most of the time), but he missed a large part of last season through injury and there were times when he struggled too for the form. Since he wasn’t colored, Spurs didn’t have a suitable replacement. Richarlison, Arnaut Danjuma and Lucas Moura were all given a chance but none are good enough on the ball to receive between the lines, turn and create something like the Swede, so the signing of Maddison will mean less reliance on Kulusevski when he is fit. . There has been some talk of Kulusevski being used as an eight under Postecoglou, but given how many options Spurs already have in central midfield, plus now Maddison, there is much less chance of him being deployed there.
Maddison is a ready-made Premier League star. He will walk into the starting XI at Spurs and he will instantly improve the team – something he did throughout his time with Leicester, who always looked a better team when he was in the side. Last season, Leicester scored 0.8 goals per game in the 10 league games that Maddison did not start, but that figure almost doubled to 1.5 goals per game when he was in the starting line-up.
He was the main man for his old club and everything went through him, as can be seen by looking at the involvement of the Leicester players in their open-play shot-ending sequences in Premier League games last season. Maddison was involved in at least 16 more such sequences than any other teammate.
The question Tottenham fans will be asking is whether Maddison will be able to transform Spurs – a bigger team full of bigger names and better players – like he did Leicester.
The main gap that Maddison will be asked to plug is his creativity and eye for a pass. Since Christian Eriksen left, Tottenham simply haven’t had a midfielder who could unlock an opponent with a single pass. They have Kane who can do just that but if he makes the pass it means someone else is running out and with Son Heung-min in the form he was last season that often meant they was far less effective in the final third. Maddison’s presence will help keep Kane closer to goal.
In his debut Premier League season in 2018-19, Maddison created more chances than any other player in the top flight (100) and he ranked well in that column throughout his time at Leicester. Last season only nine players had more chances than him (69), even though he played for a Leicester side which performed well below par and would eventually be relegated. That figure is all the more impressive considering Leicester averaged just 47.7% possession and lost 22 of their 38 games. Maddison and his teammates saw less of the ball than they were used to and yet Maddison still shone. Tottenham were fifth for goals scored in the Premier League last season with 70, but they finished eighth, just above relegated Leicester, for expected goals (57.8). Kane’s world-class finish more or less accounted for the difference between the two numbers, as he scored well above his xG rate. With only a year left on his contract and so much speculation surrounding his future, Postecoglou certainly won’t be banking on that (while there’s also the very real possibility that Kane won’t score quite as brilliantly next season). He will have better chances and more of them for his less exceptional finishers to take.
As can be seen from the graphic above, many of the chances Maddison created for Leicester came from corners and his ability at set-pieces will undoubtedly have been part of the consideration in Tottenham’s decision to make sure they signed him.
With the help of Gianni Vio, the Italian banker-turned-specialist set-piece coach who designed nearly 5,000 different set-play routines, Spurs became one of the Premier League’s best teams in set-piece situations. In 2022-23, only Liverpool (17) scored more goals from set-pieces (excluding penalties) than Tottenham (16). (It has yet to be announced whether Vio will be at Tottenham next season, but Postecoglou will certainly be keen to continue his good work.)
Son has been Spurs’ cornerback for much of the last three seasons and has a decent enough delivery, but he has been developed into a set-piece rather than always being someone who stood out in that part of the game. The fact that Pedro Porro took over the corner duties at the end of last season following his January arrival suggests that some people at the club have always considered it possible to improve Son, allowing Maddison to prove a further upgrade. Meanwhile, Son is certainly not a long-term answer to Tottenham’s problems from direct free-kicks. Maddison can be.
In the last three seasons, Tottenham have had more shots from direct free-kicks than any other team in the Premier League (69), yet 12 teams have scored more than their total of one, including Brentford, who used one of those three. seasons in the championship. Tottenham have continued to give Kane a chance at free-kicks for years despite all the evidence suggesting he can’t take them. Maddison (eight) is second only to James Ward-Prowse (15) for goals from direct free-kicks since the start of his Premier League career, so his arrival could finally mean the end of Kane plowing shots into the wall from set-pieces situations.
Maddison’s goal threat from midfield in open play will have been something else that appealed to Postecoglou. He likes his number eight to get into the penalty area and make runs beyond the front three, just like Martin Ødegaard for Arsenal or Ilkay Gündoğan for Manchester City. Postecoglou, like Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, has links to the City Football Group and it is no coincidence that the Australian likes his team to play in the same way as Arteta and Guardiola. The way he uses his number eight is no different.
It hasn’t previously been in Maddison’s game to run beyond the forwards – although there’s no reason why he can’t start to do so more – with most of his work done outside the area. Since joining Leicester in 2018, only Kevin De Bruyne (14), Kane (13) and Son (13) have scored more goals from outside the box (excluding direct free-kicks) in the Premier League than Maddison (nine). It is clear that Tottenham like players who can shoot from distance. The great thing about Maddison, though, is that when he gets on the ball in the zone 14 – the crucial part of the pitch on the edge of the opposition’s penalty area, where he had the highest proportion of his touches for Leicester in 2022-23 – he has the vision to to select a teammate in a better position as well as the ability to shoot. This makes him doubly difficult to defend against.
Maddison scored 10 goals in the Premier League last season and set up nine more, giving him a total of 19 goals and assists. That meant he was 13th in the top flight for goal involvement and top of all players in teams whose sides finished in the bottom half of the table – and his side finished 18th. Eberechi Eze, Rodrigo and team-mate Harvey Barnes were next from the clubs in the bottom half, with 14 goals involved each.
Only six players in Premier League history reached 19 or more goal involvements for a relegated side before Maddison, and many of them – not least the player with the most involvements when relegated, Crystal Palace’s Andy Johnson, with 24 in 2004/05 – had their numbers were significantly boosted by penalties (Johnson scored 11). Maddison, meanwhile, scored just one in 2022-23. There’s often great value to be found in relegated players – it turns out Liverpool have landed Andrew Robertson and Georginio Wijnaldum – and it’s hard to see a scenario where Maddison doesn’t continue to be successful at Tottenham. He has proven Premier League quality and, having thrived in a team that played as poorly as Leicester did for large parts of last season, there is every reason to expect him to hit the ground running for his new club . At £40m, Maddison doesn’t even feel like a big risk.
Who was James Maddison most like in 2022-23? You can find this out and analyze thousands of other players in the new Opta Player Comparison tool.
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