There is now just a matter of weeks before England kick off their World Cup campaign against Iran in Qatar and there cannot be too many decisions left to make in the mind of Gareth Southgate. That being said, the England manager has reportedly drawn a ‘shortlist’ – excuse the irony – of 55 players to make up a provisional squad which will then be reduced to 26 for the tournament.

England are not in a great place in terms of preparation, having been relegated from their UEFA Nations League group in the last round of international fixtures. Due to the unprecedented timing of the competition, countries competing in Qatar will not have the opportunity to play any friendly matches prior to their opening games. Therefore, it is important that the England squad is ready to hit the ground running on Monday 21st November when they face an Iranian side that will be keen to dig in and make things difficult for the Three Lions. This makes form perhaps more of a factor when considering squad selection due to the fact that there is only one week between domestic club football pausing and the World Cup kicking off.

One English player whose form has become undeniable this season is James Maddison. The creative midfielder is playing in a struggling Leicester City side and yet he is flourishing, providing a beacon of hope for the Foxes. The 25-year-old has just one England appearance to his name, coming on as a substitute in a 7-0 win over Montenegro in 2019. Will his early season form be enough to see Maddison force his way into Southgate’s plans? This is a deep dive which considers the reasons that Maddison could – and could not – make the 26.

Firstly, even despite his lack of involvement in England squads over the past three years, it is unthinkable that Maddison is not at the very least going to be one of the 55 names that Southgate is considering. The former Norwich City midfielder has always had talent in abundance, but now he is showing the consistency to match. He has taken the responsibility of being his club’s main man and is relishing that role, dragging his team forward with an impressive return rate. Six goals and two assists in his 11 Premier League games this season are testament to that and he has done this whilst playing in a role from the right of the midfield; which he would tell you himself is not his favoured position. It is not just a flash in the pan for Maddison, though. He has been displaying these high performance levels for a sustained period of time now. Nothing evidences this more than the fact that, according to Opta, after the 4-0 win over Nottingham Forest on October 3rd Harry Kane was the only Englishman to have more goal contributions in the Premier League than Maddison since the start of last season.

Whilst Maddison’s goal contributions this season so far are very impressive, his underlying statistics give us a fuller picture of just how well he has been playing. In terms of non-penalty goals, Maddison has averaged 0.53 per 90 minutes. According to FBref, this puts him in the top 3% in this metric when compared to other attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe’s top five leagues in the past year. This season, he has pushed that number up to 0.55 non-penalty goals per game. The Leicester man has also outperformed his non-penalty expected goals and assists (npxG+xAG) to date this season to a quite remarkable degree. Thus far this campaign, Maddison’s expected goals (xG) sits at 1.9; he has scored six goals. His expected assists (xAG) is 2.1, with his actual total of two. This means that his expected goal contributions so far in the Premier League is only four, but his actual output has been eight. Again, this is very impressive and highlights just how efficient Maddison has been in a team that has really struggled to find any form.

As referred to previously, Maddison has largely been occupying a right midfield spot in the Leicester side this season. He starts from this wide area but invariably finds himself infield where he can command the ball and make Rodgers’ men tick. His creativity in these areas allow him the luxury of leaving his berth on the right and look to manufacture opportunities for his teammates or himself. He is a risk-taker, which is highlighted by his comparatively low pass completion of 74% (33rd percentile amongst his peers). However, in terms of passes into the final third he is in the 84th percentile of wingers and attacking midfielders; averaging 3.67 per 90 minutes. Maddison also makes 2.14 key passes per game and averages 4.28 shot-creating actions per game. This gives you an idea of the player Maddison has become – one that takes responsibility for winning his side the game.

Maddison is not just taking more responsibility on the pitch. He is a player who speaks well about the game and has received a lot of praise for his open and informative interviews in which he often delves into the more tactical side of the game. It is clear he is a real student of the sport he loves and that attention to detail and willingness to educate himself can only help him. Whilst this in itself is not a reason to make the England squad, it should provide Southgate with reassurance that Maddison is a willing learner and will be adaptable to a number of situations. The leadership shown on camera must be exacerbated behind closed doors, too. Maddison is at a stage in his career now where he clearly recognises he has a role to play in the dressing room and it appears to be one he has relished.

As outlined, there is understandably a growing clamour for Maddison to be given a chance in the World Cup in Qatar next month. Despite his form, though, this is by no means a guarantee.

One reason for this is that so-called ‘luxury’ players like Maddison are something of a dying breed in football currently. With so much emphasis on pressing football and high-intensity play, the more flamboyant and creative players have seen their stock diminish. Attacking players now have to do both sides of the game to a very high level. This is why players such as Mason Mount are deemed such an asset; they combine high defensive work-rate with attacking ability. Mount is not in the best of form for Chelsea this season and Maddison’s attacking play has been at a notably higher level than Mount’s recently. Something that would barely have been a consideration of an attacking player 20 years ago is their intelligence in pressing opponents and retrieving the ball in the attacking third. Yet now it is one of the main reasons so many people rate Mount so highly. In terms of pressures per 90 minutes, Mount is in the 89th percentile (20.31). The Chelsea man is in the top 6% for successful pressures per 90 (6.15) and in the top 3% for pressures in the attacking third. In contrast, Maddison is in the 69th percentile for pressures per 90 (17.52), but is in the bottom 37% for successful pressures per 90 (3.93) and the bottom 36% for pressures in the attacking third (4.71). Maddison’s percentage of successful pressures per game is also in the bottom 4% (4.05), whilst Mount’s success rate is in the top 6% (6.15).

Using the example of Mount as an alternative to Maddison shows that attacking players do not have to come at the cost of defensive solidity and – arguably- Mount would not be in the England squad so regularly without his defensive qualities. Qualities that Maddison does not seem to posses. Admittedly, the pressing data can be skewed somewhat by a team’s style of play, but the difference is enough when comparing these two players to see that it is down to more than simply their respective coaches’ philosophies.

Unfortunately for Maddison, it is not just Mount he is competing with for an England place. It looks very likely that Southgate is going to opt to use the back three that he has had success with in the last two major tournaments. This tends to mean that England either set up in a 3412 or a 343 formation. Neither of these formations are particularly accommodating for a player of Maddison’s skillset. You could argue the point that Maddison could play as an attacking midfield ‘8’ in a 433 formation, but Southgate likes to line up with a midfield double pivot in front of his defence. In the delayed Euro 2020 tournament this was Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. For this tournament it looks set to be Rice and Jude Bellingham. Bellingham may be granted slightly more license to get forward, but not to the extent that it is feasible to consider Maddison for that role. This leaves either the ‘number 10’ position in the 3412, or a wide position in a 343. This works against Maddison. England have such riches in wide and attacking midfield areas and with so little time to force his way into the side it is almost impossible to envisage Southgate considering Maddison as a starter in any of these roles.

In those attacking positions Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling are as close to guaranteed starters as you can get. In either formation this leaves one space for any of Maddison, Mount, Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish or even the likes of Jarrod Bowen, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford if they are considered. Realistically, Maddison is never going to start in either of the wide positions, which leaves just that attacking midfield position. As it is an area where England possess so much talent, there is no merit in Southgate including him in the 26-man squad unless he genuinely foresees a circumstance in which he would call upon him over one of the alternative options. There is no doubt about it, Maddison does offer that creative spark and, with the favourable group that England have been drawn, perhaps his ability to unlock a bolted defence would be one that England could benefit from in games where they will likely see a lot of the ball in the opposition half.

Southgate’s perceived favouring of pragmatism has been used as a stick to beat him with by many, particularly recently, and this is another reason that may work against Maddison. Trust is also a big thing for the England boss and is the reason he often turns to the players that have done it for him before when preparing for big games. Prior to making his England debut in November 2019, Maddison had pulled out of a fixture the previous international break through illness. On the night of the game, Maddison was pictured out late in a casino and Southgate subsequently said that player – who was 22 at the time – had an “increased spotlight on him”. Southgate did hand Maddison his debut the following month, but whether the England boss has completely put the incident to bed only he knows.

With his impressive form and increased maturity, Maddison must be one of the players who is giving Southgate a selection headache at the very least. It feels as though it would be harsh to overlook the man who managed 20 Premier League goal contributions last season given that he has built on that at the beginning of this season.

Ultimately though, Southgate has to consider whether he feels that Maddison can improve England’s chances of winning the World Cup. If he does not think so, then he simply will not be on that plane to Qatar.