How James Maddison is “100 times smarter than any coach”

After four decades of coaching, Juanma Lillo can recognize a player.

When he was Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City, he worked alongside Phil Foden and Jack Grealish, two of English football’s most promising attacking midfielders. So it means something that Lillo picked Leicester City’s James Maddison as the English footballer he’s most excited about in a recent guest column for the athlete.

“A player I’m crazy about for England who has never played – James Maddison,” he wrote. “I love this guy, he excites me.

“He is an authentic footballer, more of a street product than an academy product. He is daring. He has nerve. A manager may tell him to do A, but if he thinks B is the right option, he will do B. I just love that. Any idea that comes to James Maddison’s mind is 100 times better than any idea you’ll find at a coaching conference.”

Unfortunately, after being called back after three years in the international wilderness to be part of Gareth Southgate’s 26-man squad, Maddison didn’t get the chance to bring his “street style” to the World Cup stage – a combination of Fitness issues (he missed England’s first two group games with a knee problem) and the good form of Foden, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Grealish denied him a single minute of football in the tournament.

So what did England miss by not giving Maddison a chance in Qatar? And when Lillo talks about what comes to mind for Maddison, that it’s “100 times better” than solutions most coaches come up with, what might he mean by that?

Dead Ball Skills

Rashford scored a wonderful free-kick goal against Wales in the last group game, but when he netted a last-minute free-kick that could have saved England in Saturday’s quarter-finals against France, veteran Maddison viewers would have been stung in the face regretting the 26- year-old was watching from the bench and couldn’t take it.

Maddison has struck eight times from direct free-kicks in 146 Premier League games – one less than Frank Lampard in 611 and at the age of 26 within sight of 18 of his idol David Beckham.

Premier League goals from free kicks

Premier League since October 8th, 2018* Direct free kick goals

James Ward-Prowse




Trent Alexander Arnold


Kieran Trippier


Luke Digne


Ruben Neves


David Silva


Xhaka granite


Maddison made his Premier League debut on August 10, 2018

England team-mate Kieran Trippier, who doesn’t have a problem with free-kicks himself, said in a recent interview with British newspaper The Times that Maddison is “probably one of the best free-kick shooters in the world”.

He has repeatedly demonstrated his skill in four and a half seasons with Leicester, scoring almost every type of free-kick.

Here Maddison fires a shot into the top right corner of the Nottingham Forest net:

Against Brentford, he rolls one into the top left corner from a very similar position to the Forest goal above:

And against Southampton he beats Gavin Bazunu at the near post from a tight angle:

How he receives the ball

But Maddison is so much more than just a deadball specialist — the equivalent of an NFL kicker. One skill that sets him apart from many of his peers is his ability to take the ball on the spin and change direction sharply despite pressure from opponents.

Here against Everton, Maddison pulls away from Dwight McNeil to take a pass from Timothy Castagne. As McNeil completes it, he runs the ball down his body and rotates 180 degrees to break away before slamming a shot into the outside of a post.

Against Liverpool, he outsmarts Fabinho, who appears to have covered Maddison’s run only for the England midfielder, to somehow reverse direction and slice inside with a Cruyff twist.

Find the “Zone of Uncertainty”.

Since joining Leicester in the summer of 2018 and making the move from championship football with Norwich City, Maddison has developed the ability to find spaces between the lines, in that zone of uncertainty opponents fear: their defenders aren’t sure if pushing forward they are supposed to deal with him and risk being pulled from the position, while their midfield colleagues seem unsure if it is their job to give up.

He was in a forward position against Brighton but dropped in space to receive the ball when the defense pulled back and played a superb over-the-ball pass for Ademola Lookman, penetrating the box from deep:

In another example, Maddison is pushed straight onto Tottenham Hotspur’s defensive line as the ball goes to full-back Castagne, but falls out as the game progresses to find that gap. Again spotting a team-mate’s run and playing a first-ever pass to Patson Daka in a move that puts Leicester a goal closer.

A cutting edge

When he first joined Leicester from Scottish giants Celtic midway through the 2018/19 season, Brendan Rodgers demanded better numbers from his attacking midfielders – a more clinical advantage. Maddison has definitely delivered that in the last third of the last year and a half.

In all, Maddison has recorded 40 goals and 29 assists in those 146 league games for Leicester. Almost half of those goals (19) and 12 assists have come since the start of last season, making him the England midfielder with the best combined numbers in those two metrics for the period when Southgate faced World Cup squad decision in November .

Maddison Premier League Goals

First League Madison, James


Leicester City

games played




goals (in box)


goals (outer box)


Goals (penalties)


Direct free kick goals


goals (right footed)


Goals (left footed)


goals (head)


Seventeen of his 40 goals have come from outside the box – the most by any player since Maddison’s Premier League debut in August 2018. That’s two more than James Ward-Prowse, although 12 of the Southampton man’s 15 goals have come from outside the box were box were free kicks, and three more than Kevin De Bruyne.

Aim outside the box

Premier League since October 8th, 2018* goals (outer box)



James Ward-Prowse


Kevin De Bruyne


son Heung-min


Harry Kane


Ruben Neve


Riyadh Mahrez


Trent Alexander Arnold




Marcus Rasford


Christian Ericsen


Maddison is ninth on the list of players with the highest percentage of goals scored outside the box in the Premier League, at 42.5 per cent.

All-time goals outside the penalty area

Premier League of all time Goals* goals (outer box) % outside the box

Sebastian Larson




Jan Harte




David Beckham




Jamie Redknapp




Andros Townsend




Patrick Berger




Craig Gardner




Christian Ericsen








Kevin De Bruyne




Towards the end of last season, there was a classic example of the threat Maddison poses to teams. In the sixth minute at Chelsea he grabs a loose ball, punches Thiago Silva and drills a flat shot past Edouard Mendy from the edge of the box.

In March he demonstrated his skills from outside the penalty area in open play. Picking up a pass from fellow substitute Jamie Vardy, he drives forward and beats future World Cup benchmate Nick Pope with a curling left-footed finish.

He’s definitely bipedal. Ten of his 40 Premier League goals have come from his left foot – thought to be his weaker foot – and as this shot card shows, he’s struck from a variety of positions inside and outside the box.

Positional Versatility

It’s often said Maddison has struggled to convince Southgate because he’s only seen as No10 and England don’t play with any of them under his current manager. But at Leicester, Rodgers has used him mostly to the right of the front three, with license to cut in. In fact, as these next examples against Watford and Manchester United prove, he can play wide and deliver inch-perfect crosses with either foot.

Rodgers says he prefers Maddison, who plays center, and started this season with him in a No. 8 role, and he can be equally effective in deeper positions, getting on the ball and building the game. When he first saw Maddison play, Claude Puel – the manager who signed him from Norwich – believed his vision and pass weight made him a natural, deep playmaker.

Here, in last season’s Europa Conference League quarter-finals against PSV Eindhoven, Maddison drops deep to receive, then plays a through ball that bisects two PSV defenders to find Ricardo Pereira’s forward run and put Leicester in goal bring.

Southgate had some good attacking opportunities in Qatar and has enjoyed longer relationships and therefore more trust with other people. Broadly speaking, that confidence was rewarded as England pushed the reigning champions to the limit in a tie that was Harry Kane’s late missed penalty before extra time.

But Maddison is more than just a number 10, and despite talented footballers lining up ahead of him in the queue for England minutes, this is a player who – as Lillo so eloquently pointed out – has more strings to his bow than he’s often given credit for for.

(Top Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)


Leave a Comment