Gareth Southgate’s preferred 4-3-3 formation brings a certain fluidity to England’s play that’s been there all too infrequently in the national team’s thousand matches.
The front three, constructed around captain Harry Kane, is explicitly attack-minded and the midfield has a multitude of jobs to handle, from breaking up play to exploiting transition to creating opportunities for the forwards.
Southgate can choose between two fours and an eight, two eights and a four or something with a little more width to offer, but essentially a midfield three is a midfield three.
What the England manager doesn’t need in a 4-3-3 with such potency up top is a ten, a player in a truly free role between the lines or anything in between.
Therein lies the puzzle facing two of England’s most auspicious footballing talents. James Maddison and Jack Grealish, West Midlands boys both, are two of the Premier League’s most exciting midfielders.
23-year-old Maddison is from Coventry and started his career at Coventry City before moving on to Norwich City and then getting his Premier League opportunity at Leicester City. He’s looked comfortable throughout and now has an England cap to his name.
Grealish, a year older, grew up in Solihull and is the lifeblood of Aston Villa. He became a regular after an impressive, challenging loan spell at Notts County. He was relegated with Villa and led their promotion charge last season.
Like Maddison, Grealish took to the top flight like a duck to water on his return. Now Villa’s captain and in excellent form, an England call is inevitable.
Maddison, while individually excellent and effortlessly creative, is in many ways a conventional talent. He just happens to be a very good one, potentially exceptional if his current trajectory is any indicator.Embed from Getty Images
The way he links the play, drives forward on the ball and passes like a seasoned playmaker is thrilling to watch and highly effective. Maddison struts through games, brimming with belief in his own ability.
The threat to Maddison’s England career isn’t a matter of position as much as style.
For Leicester his average position is deeper than a traditional number ten, so it’s not true to say he doesn’t fit England’s shape. He does, though, represent an attacking presence in a midfield whose main job isn’t always to supplement the front three.
It’s certainly possible to craft a midfield trio around a player of Maddison’s qualities but the question of whether he can play with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Dele Alli or Ross Barkley rather than two deeper lying team-mates is going to cost him – and likely also Mason Mount – an England cap or two over the next decade.
But Grealish is unique. His centre of gravity is in his calf muscles and he’s the most natural handler of a football Villa have had for generations.Embed from Getty Images
He glides past Premier League players like they’re Poundland training equipment, picking and playing the right pass when and only when it presents itself.
The way Grealish attracts opponents and holds on to the ball is Villa’s most effective weapon because it creates space for everyone else to play. Grealish is happy with that; if pushed, he’d receive the ball to feet in a phone box full of defenders.
The Villa skipper looks for all the world like he was born a footballer. He has Paul Gascoigne’s drop of the shoulder and innate mastery of the ball, not to mention the otherworldly ability to see and think almost in a whole different dimension to the players around him.
Grealish is a central midfielder who doesn’t fit any established profile of what a central midfielder is. He’s not a pure attacker, not a destroyer, not even an old-fashioned box-to-box player. He’s just Grealish.
His form for Villa is forcing the issue with Southgate, who’s known to be an admirer despite paranoid accusations of the opposite. There comes a point at which a player is simply too good to be ignored. Like Maddison before him, Grealish is nudging the threshold.
His challenge is different. His most eye-catching Premier League performances this season have been in a position that places him in competition not with Barkley, Alli, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mount, but with Raheem Sterling.
Playing a newcomer in an entirely different role to his club manager requires a level of imagination with which most international managers wouldn’t bother.
Fortunately international football is a game of squads and options, and England have two excellent ones ready to hop off the production line and into the big stuff.
Maddison and Grealish, for all their stylistic differences and friendly rivalry for a place, should just be considered two brilliant new players at Southgate’s disposal. England are lucky to have them both, these two players able to touch genius, and at the same time, no less.
That they’re battling their positions as well as one another speaks volumes of their individuality and of the strength of England’s system, which has been a catalyst for the national team’s best performances of late.
It’s tempting to think that Grealish’s ability to thrive wherever he’s played, to affect a game from any position that can be thrown at him, gives him the advantage.
Then again, Maddison has a head-start and is by no means a poorer alternative. Even as the younger man he’s the more established player of the two and is firing on all cylinders while Grealish and Villa sometimes struggle to hit top gear.
Only time will tell which, if either, of these dynamic midfielders can establish a regular England spot. It’s too close to call. All I know is that it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.