The Tottenham rebuild is starting to take shape. And it’s clear with the signing of James Maddison what Ange Postecoglou is hoping to do.

Ange-ball is the name of the game in N17 and one of the most important jobs for the new Tottenham manager is changing 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 protecting the back three, Postecoglou only ever plays with a three in the middle of the park. That leaves a little more space for what one might call a ‘luxury’ player in midfield than Conte could ever have.

Maddison, of course, is no luxury player. Funnily enough, the phrase ‘all-round, ball-winning workhorse’ is, in some ways, a fairly good description of him. It is only inaccurate because his ball-winning and work rate are not the aspects of his game for which he is most known. 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 regains in the attacking third for teams who finished in the bottom half of the table – but it is in possession that Maddison thrives. To play him in a two would be to demand too much of him out of possession and sacrifice too much of his game with 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 given responsibility as the main creative force for his side. But like many a creative 10 before him, he has proved brilliantly able to make the transition to a number eight in a 4-3-3.

That is likely the position Maddison will play in Postecoglou’s system, though 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 (alongside Harry Kane, who is naturally needed higher up the pitch much of the time), but he missed a big chunk of last season through injury and there were times when he struggled for form, too. When he was off colour, Spurs didn’t have an adequate replacement. Richarlison, Arnaut Danjuma and Lucas Moura all gave it a go, but none are good enough on the ball to receive between the lines, turn and create anything 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.

James Maddison with/without fact

Maddison is a ready-made Premier League star. He will walk into the starting XI at Spurs and he’ll 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 Maddison did not start, but that figure almost doubled to 1.5 goals per game when he was in the starting lineup.

He was the main man for his old club, and everything went through him, as can be shown by looking at the involvement by 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.

Leicester's open play shot-ending sequence involvement in the Premier League in 2022-23

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 with 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 got Kane, who can do just that, but if he’s making the pass, it means someone else is on the end of it, and with Son Heung-min in the form he was in last season, that often meant they were far less effective in the final third. Maddison’s presence will help keep Kane closer to goal.

In his debut season in the Premier League 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 laid on more opportunities than him (69), even though he was playing for a Leicester side who were performing well below par and would eventually be relegated. That tally is all the more impressive considering Leicester averaged just 47.7% possession, and lost 22 of their 38 games. Maddison and his teammates were seeing less of the ball than they were used to and yet Maddison still shone. Tottenham ranked fifth for goals scored in the Premier League last season with 70, but they were eighth, just above relegated Leicester, for expected goals (57.8). Kane’s world-class finishing more or less accounted for the difference between the two tallies, as he scored well above his xG rate. Given he has just a year left on his contract and there is so much speculation about his future, Postecoglou certainly won’t want to rely on that (while there’s also the very real possibility Kane will not score quite so outstandingly next season). He will want better chances and more of them for his less-exceptional finishers to take.

James Maddison chances created for Leicester in 2022-23

As can be seen from the above graphic, many of the chances Maddison created for Leicester came from corners, and his ability at dead balls 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 has designed almost 5,000 different set-play routines, Spurs became one of the Premier League’s best teams at dead-ball situations. In 2022-23, only Liverpool (17) scored more goals at set-pieces (excluding penalties) than Tottenham (16). (It hasn’t yet been announced whether or not Vio will be at Tottenham next season, but Postecoglou will surely be keen to continue his good work.)

Son has been Spurs’ corner taker for much of the last three seasons, and he has a decent enough delivery, but he has been developed into a set-piece taker rather than always being someone who stood out for that part of the game. The fact that Pedro Porro took over corner duties at the end of last season following his January arrival suggests some people at the club always considered it possible to improve on Son, so Maddison could prove a further upgrade. Meanwhile, Son certainly isn’t a long-term answer to Tottenham’s problems from direct free-kicks. Maddison may be.

In the last three seasons, Tottenham have had more shots from direct free-kicks than every other team in the Premier League (69), and yet 12 teams have scored more than their total of one, including Brentford, who spent one of those three seasons in the Championship. Tottenham have persisted with giving Kane a chance on free-kicks for years despite all evidence suggesting he can’t take them. Maddison (eight) ranks second only to James Ward-Prowse (15) for goals from direct free-kicks since the start of his Premier League career, so his arrival might finally spell the end for Kane ploughing shots into the wall from dead-ball situations.

Maddison’s goal threat from midfield in open play will have been something else that appealed to Postecoglou. He likes his number eights to get into the penalty area and make runs beyond the front three, much 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 teams to play in a similar fashion to Arteta and Guardiola. The way he uses his number eights is no different.

It hasn’t previously been in Maddison’s game to run beyond the strikers – though there’s no reason he can’t start to do that more –  with most of his work being done outside the area. Since he joined 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). Clearly Tottenham like players who can shoot from distance. The great thing about Maddison, though, is that when he gets on the ball in 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 pick out a teammate in a better position as well as the ability to shoot. That makes him doubly hard to defend against.

James Maddison open play touch zones

Maddison scored 10 goals in the Premier League last season and set up nine more, giving him a combined total of 19 goals and assists. That meant he ranked 13th in the top flight for goal involvements, and top of all players at teams whose team finished in the bottom half of the table – and his side came 18th. Eberechi Eze, Rodrigo and teammate Harvey Barnes were next from bottom-half clubs, with 14 goal involvements apiece.

Only six players in Premier League history managed 19 or more goal involvements for a relegated team before Maddison, and many of them – not least the player with the most involvements when being relegated, Crystal Palace’s Andy Johnson, with 24 in 2004/05 – had their numbers significantly boosted by penalties (Johnson scored 11). Maddison, meanwhile, scored just one in 2022-23. There is often fantastic value to be found in relegated players – the signings of Andrew Robertson and Georginio Wijnaldum by Liverpool prove as much – and it is difficult to see any scenario in which Maddison does not go on to succeed at Tottenham. He is proven Premier League quality, and having thrived in a team that played as poorly as Leicester did for much 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 much of a risk.

Who were the most similar players to James Maddison across 2022-23? You can find this out, plus analyse thousands of other players in the new Opta Player Comparison tool.

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