The days when England had two truly world class creative forces to choose from in midfield, couldn’t pick, and crippled themselves trying to shoehorn them both into the side, are well and truly gone.
Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have long-since stepped off the pitch and behind the curtain, but with every generation comes positional rivalries, and if this season is anything to go by, then England have a doozy on their hands in the ongoing Jack Grealish vs. James Maddison battle.
With Dele Alli a near-certainty to be travelling come the summer, there is likely only room for one other number ten in Gareth Southgate’s squad. It had looked nailed-on that it would be Maddison, but Grealish’s explosive re-emergence with Aston Villa since August has provided some food for thought.
So, if there can only be one, who should it be? Will it be the driving force behind the Foxes top-four push, or will it be the man almost single-handedly keeping the Villains in the fight at the other end of the table?
Here, 90min breaks down five key areas on which to assess the duo, and picks a winner so Southgate doesn’t have to.
England have long-since lacked a player capable of unpicking sturdy defences with a magical Hollywood pass, or a driving run from deep, or some general ingenuity the likes of which Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice or Harry Winks have rarely been able to provide.
There’s no denying that both Grealish and Maddison have the ability to provide that spark in spades, and the margins between them are exceptionally fine.
However, on the basis of this season, Grealish has done enough to win out. The Villa man has provided six assists in all competitions to Maddison’s three, and has done so more consistently over the course of the season. He also just edges it in terms of key passes, with 2.6 per 90 to Maddison’s 2.5, and has created 46 chances from open play – bettered only by Kevin de Bruyne’s 53, and miles ahead of Maddison’s 25.
In terms of goal return, there is precious little between the two – both registering nine in all competitions, albeit with Grealish playing 121 fewer minutes. In order to split them, you have to delve further back into their careers – and upon doing so it becomes clear that there is, in fact, a superior goalscorer.
Across 170 games for Villa – 89 of which came in the Championship – Grealish has netted a not-to-be-snuffed-at 24 strikes. Maddison, however, has netted 16 for Leicester alone – and that’s just in 18 months in the Premier League.
In his 117 games across England’s top two divisions, in fact, Maddison has netted 32 goals, comfortably surpassing Grealish’s total in 53 fewer games. Grealish’s improvement of late has been vast and that does compensate for a few fruitless seasons earlier in his career, but when the numbers are this clear, they rarely lie.
Perhaps the most subjective and difficult to quantify category, an ability to drive the team forward will be crucial for whoever ends up being selected – and it’s another area in which there is no clear winner.
Both players are among the best in the league in central positions when it comes to dribbling, seeing plenty of the ball and given license to create and make things happen by their teammates. In terms of individual ability, however, it has to be Grealish you’d back to beat a man ahead of his Midlands counterpart.
That’s perhaps just a matter of opinion, but it’s also backed up by the statistics. The duo are the two most fouled players in the league, but Grealish’s 4.7 per 90 is far greater than Maddison’s 3.1. The Villa man also manages marginally more dribbles per game, and among central midfield players, he is bettered only by teammate John McGinn and Chelsea’s Matteo Kovacic in that respect – despite Villa’s lowly league position.
Work Rate and Defensive Contributions
There’s little denying, however, that it’s Maddison who does more for the team. It may be necessitated by Brendan Rodgers’ high-intensity system, but the Leicester man has impressed mightily as a team player this season, and averages roughly two tackles per game – double that of Grealish.
In general, it’s abundantly clear he covers more ground and puts in the hard yards to a greater extent – albeit something not asked of Grealish, who operates as Villa’s attacking pivot.
Still, if England are looking for a midfielder to come off the bench and put the work in while offering some flare in the final third, there’s no doubt it’s Maddison who is more suited to the industrious side of the game.
Suitability for England
As much as both would have something different to offer England, there’s no escaping that Grealish is suited to being Villa’s attacking focal point – a luxury he would certainly not have while playing for England – while this issue is nowhere near as prevalent for Maddison in the Leicester side.
There is also the consideration that the latter is well-acclimatised to a style of football whose focus lies in keeping the ball and playing on the front foot – the exact opposite of Grealish at Villa – so would naturally require less of an adjustment period.
All that in mind, it’s Maddison who is more suited to a role within the current England team, but there is plenty time for things to change between now and the summer.
It’s an immeasurably difficult choice, and a debate that could really go on for as long as you want it to, but ultimately it’s Maddison who just edges out his contemporary.
He may have fewer goal involvements this season, but is more of a team player, and while the fact Grealish is more than keeping pace with his contributions for a Villa side far inferior to Leicester, the fact Maddison plays his football with a dominant, fast-paced side is an advantage more than a stick with which to beat him.
Grealish is an exceptional wild-card option, but Maddison is better suited to the role that would be asked of him within the England side, so if the tournament kicked off tomorrow, it’s likely he who would be on the plane.
Or the bus, depending on where the first fixture takes place.
Winner: James Maddison
All stats via WhoScored.