Facing reigning Premier League champions slap-bang in the middle of the January transfer window, Wednesday’s FA Cup replay with Chelsea always felt like something of an audition for Norwich City’s prodigious youngster James Maddison – a chance to prove himself versus the calibre of opposition rumoured suitors Liverpool and Tottenham will expect their transfer targets to perform against.
It would be a stretch to suggest the 21-year-old passed with flying colours. Maddison just couldn’t find that moment of magic to truly affect the tie, like his defence-splitting through ball to Josh Murphy that put his side ahead of Arsenal in the League Cup back in October, or like the array of set pieces converted into goals – either by the midfielder himself or who he’s delivered to – that have littered the Canaries’ Championship campaign.
Rather, he failed to create a single scoring chance, his six crosses failed to find their target and his dead ball deliveries were all cut out by Chelsea defenders.
And yet, Maddison still stood out as a presence on the pitch, which in itself is a big endorsement of a young player sharing grass with serial trophy winners and current Premier League champions. Indeed, much of Norwich’s forward play went through the technically-gifted youngster and even when he wasn’t on the ball, Maddison’s movement made room for others – particularly striker Nelson Oliveira who hit the crossbar in the first half and finished up with four efforts at goal.
Whenever a young Englishman is acquired from the Football League, and particularly when Tottenham are involved, comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Dele Alli – who took the step up from MK Dons to the Premier League with immaculate ease and is now one of England’s most talented players. While few, if any, are capable of making the same leap in quite the same way as Spurs’ attacking midfielder, the similarities between Alli and Maddison are difficult to ignore.
The most obvious is the role they play within the team, at their most comfortable in the pocket between the midfield and the attack. Whereas Alli uses that space to make late runs into the box, however, Maddison is more of a linking player – someone who uses his low centre of gravity, intelligence and technical quality to break away from markers and feed the forward line by slotting through cute passes. Tellingly of his creative qualities and dribbling ability, no player has averaged more key passes (2.8) or fouls won (3.7) per match in the Championship this season.
That’s not to suggest Maddison doesn’t possess netting prowess of his own; he’s actually scored more goals than he’s assisted in the second tier this term. That owes much to his lethal finishes from free kicks, but the hot shot has produced his fair share of stunners in open play as well – chiefly, a powerful curler against Middlesbrough that earned national attention. Only Aiden McGeady and Kamil Grosicki have scored more second-tier goals from outside the box in 2017/18.
But the more crucial similarity with Alli is how both players have been toughened up and earned vital game intelligence by getting games in the Football League. Before Alli moved to north London he’d already made 88 appearances for MK Dons. Maddison now boasts 93, spanning League One, the Championship and the Scottish Premiership from his time with Coventry, the Canaries and on loan at Aberdeen.
At this point, that’s what stands out most about Maddison. He’s got something of a nasty streak to compensate for his 5 foot 9 frame and he’s not afraid of taking on the far more powerful, far more experienced and far dirtier breed of defender seen across the Football League. Likewise, he’s already developed an understanding of the senior game, in terms of positioning and anticipation, that Premier League academy products often lack.
And the key consequence of Maddison realising how effective he can be against Football League opposition rings true with Alli as well. There is already an aura of confidence around the Norwich playmaker and a clear belief in his own abilities. That, as much as anything else, should make the step up to Premier League football infinitely easier.
In terms of a deal being struck this month, however, you have to wonder how realistic that is and whether it would be in Maddison’s best interests. Norwich have already parted with Alex Pritchard and Cameron Jerome, so losing a third member from their attacking cast mid-season would be a huge blow.
Likewise, Maddison still has plenty left to learn at Carrow Road and moving up to top flight level would make more sense in the summer, when he’s allowed a full pre-season to integrate into his new team and get up to speed. January signings need to hit the ground running and should Maddison fail to do so, that will inevitably stifle his aforementioned confidence.
But quickly gaining a reputation as the most talented young Englishman in the Football League, it seems a case of when rather than if Maddison graduates to Premier League football. Should a move fail to materialise before the end of the month, expect top flight clubs to come calling once again in the summer transfer window.