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Sunday, May 19, 2024

James Maddison and the comeback that could reinvigorate Tottenham’s season

James Maddison has had injuries before. But none quite as devastating as the one to his ankle against Chelsea on November 6, which has ended up robbing him of almost three months of his first season as a Tottenham Hotspur player.

This has been the longest injury lay-off of Maddison’s career, even if he returns to action against Manchester City in Friday’s FA Cup tie. He returned to full training at the end of last week, staying at the training ground to work while the rest of his team-mates flew off on holiday during the club’s winter break.

The real reason this injury was so hard to take was that it came when Maddison was playing some of the best football of his career, and loving every second of it.

It feels a long time ago now, those early weeks of the season when the Ange Postecoglou experiment was launched at Tottenham. This was a new coach with new ideas, a way of playing that was the diametrical opposite of how Spurs had tried to play football for the previous four years.

With half a new team too, the sense of a fresh start for everyone was overwhelming. The question was whether it would click, and if so, how fast?

Signed from relegated Leicester City, Maddison started as if he took the suggestions this version of Tottenham would need time to settle and gel as a personal affront. There was something miraculously frictionless about the way he began the season; as if he had been playing for Spurs for years, under this manager, alongside these team-mates. It felt like a trick of the light.

What was so striking and so unusual was how instantly integral Maddison was to his new team. He was handed the vice-captaincy and the No 10 shirt before the opening match away to Brentford (having worn No 71 in pre-season while Harry Kane was still at the club). On the pitch, he demanded the ball and he orchestrated the play, giving Tottenham a creative presence in the middle they had lacked since Christian Eriksen left more than three years earlier.

(Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

Maddison started with two assists on his debut that day against Brentford, the first of which was a brilliant whipped free kick to which Cristian Romero applied the finishing touch. Maddison ran the game again the following weekend when Spurs beat Manchester United 2-0 (with a wonderful pass out to Ivan Perisic to set up Ben Davies’ shot, which went in via Lisandro Martinez).

At Bournemouth in the third match of the season, he showed another side to his game, bursting into the box to get on the end of Pape Sarr’s pass to put Spurs ahead. At Burnley, another week on, he bent in a classic Maddison finish from just outside the box.

When Tottenham went to Arsenal on September 24 for Maddison’s first north London derby, you had to remind yourself that he had only been playing for them for just over a month. Another two wonderful assists for Son Heng-min: the first spinning past Bukayo Saka to the byline before pulling the ball back, the second pickpocketing Jorginho to launch a counter.

There was another clever jink to the byline at Luton Town in early October, to set up Micky van de Ven’s goal. When Spurs beat Fulham 2-0 in their next match two weeks later, Maddison scored from a Son pass. Fully in sync with his captain and fully on top of his game, Maddison felt on top of the world.

Even in the match when all of this momentum came to a halt, Maddison started the night with a moment of genius. As Spurs advanced from the back, he struck a perfect forward pass, slicing between the opposing Chelsea ranks, opening up the pitch, finding Sarr’s run. All of a sudden, there were six white shirts charging forward, and Dejan Kulusevski put them ahead.

But Maddison’s flying start ground to a halt just before the break when he went down while chasing after a loose ball alongside Reece James. He tried to continue but limped off minutes later.

The injury was scanned the next day. Results showed Maddison had injured his deltoid ligament: the tissue on the inside of the ankle, made up of medial collateral ligaments, that helps with stabilisation. Postecoglou admitted in his next press conference that it was “a lot worse” than first thought.

(Alex Pantling/Getty Images)

This was terrible news for Maddison. He is an experienced player, now in his sixth season in the Premier League. Frustration is nothing new to him: just over a year ago, he made the England World Cup squad but struggled to shake off an injury and did not play one minute of football in the tournament. But this was different.

At first, after this latest injury, Maddison retreated into his own world.

The player has a busy life away from the game, with a two-year-old and infant twins. He also has a real hinterland — not just darts and snooker (he went to watch both the World Darts Championship and the Masters snooker while recovering) but also Harry Potter. In an interview for Amazon’s Premier League coverage, Maddison revealed he watches all eight films in the series every Christmas. For his 27th birthday later in November, his partner bought him a Harry Potter wand signed by Daniel Radcliffe, who plays him in the movies.

But football is Maddison’s obsession. He has always been a student of the game, watching everything he can with an endless curiosity about other teams and players. So recovery was a frustrating time, by his own admission. The physio room at Tottenham has a big window overlooking the training pitches outside. It meant that as Maddison came in for his rehab every day, he had to watch his team-mates being out on the grass. He said that he felt “helpless” as Spurs rolled on without him.

Ultimately, Maddison’s importance to Tottenham was underlined by Postecoglou’s struggles to recreate the imagination he brings to the team. He shifted Kulusevski back into midfield, he tried Giovani Lo Celso and even Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg in that role. But Spurs have never been quite the same.

Maddison at the final of the Masters snooker in London earlier this month (Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

The turning point for Maddison’s recovery came in the middle of December, when he had been out for almost six weeks. He travelled to Dubai with some of Spurs’ medical staff for some warm-weather outdoor rehabilitation, working hard to strengthen his injured ankle. Once back in London, he continued to prepare for his return to full training.

On January 4, Postecoglou said Maddison was “running with the sports science crew”, and eight days later that he should return to training between the games with Manchester United (January 14) and Manchester City (Friday). Maddison would have loved to be fit for the trip to Old Trafford to face the team he supported as a boy but it was in fact last week — 10 weeks after the injury — that he was finally back with the group.

We will have to wait to see in what capacity Maddison will be involved in this fourth-round tie at home against holders City. The hope will be that when he returns — whether that be on Friday or next Wednesday when Brentford visit in the Premier League — he will be as influential as he was in that first part of the season.

But the investment the club made in Maddison last summer already looks to be one of their cleverest deals in recent years.

Tottenham had been well aware of Maddison for almost a decade when he signed, having tracked him since he was a teenager playing for Coventry City. The idea, after the success of signing Dele Alli from MK Dons in 2015, was to find another rough diamond playing in the lower leagues of English football.

But they never made a serious push for the young Maddison, watching and waiting as Norwich City signed him from Coventry. (Maddison was so good there that he had Barcelona scouts coming to watch him in the Championship at Carrow Road.) It was Leicester City, in the end, who bought him from Norwich. The other ‘Big Six’ teams have all had moments of trying for him and always kept a close eye.

But last summer, with Leicester relegated from the Premier League, the two clubs who wanted Maddison the most were Newcastle and Spurs.

Newcastle, of course, had Champions League football on offer, while Tottenham were out of Europe entirely. But it was never fully clear how Maddison would fit into Eddie Howe’s team; whether he would play centrally or wide. Newcastle’s preference was for athleticism and they ended up signing Maddison’s Leicester team-mate Harvey Barnes to play on the wing.

Tottenham, however, made it very clear to Maddison where they saw him fitting in. Fabio Paratici pushed hard for the deal, making it clear how highly he had always rated Maddison, having strongly considered a move for him in 2022. When it was time for the player to make up his mind, Postecoglou spoke to him on the phone, as he often does with prospective new signings.

What stood out to Spurs’ newly-hired manager in that conversation was Maddison’s desire, specifically to play for his new Tottenham side, and to be its creative director. Postecoglou could hear that hunger in his voice. And on this rock, the Australian decided to build his team.

Maddison quickly became a central figure at Spurs (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Maddison was all-in. Guglielmo Vicario had signed from Empoli the day before and Maddison remembers, before he was even officially a Tottenham player, watching clips of his new team-mate’s best saves on his phone. Postecoglou later reflected that he was “overjoyed” at Maddison’s arrival — not just for his quality as a footballer, but for his willingness to take responsibility and be a leader in the group.

When Maddison arrived at Spurs, the sense of a clean slate was so powerful that it had flattened any hierarchies among the players. The old leaders were either leaving or out on the fringes, and it was time for new ones to emerge. This was the perfect environment for Maddison to step into, with his innate confidence and his willingness to be counted on. This is why he was chosen as vice-captain before he had even kicked a ball for Tottenham in a competitive match.

It did not take any time at all for the team to cohere around Maddison, which is why his November injury has left such a hole.

Now, after almost three months out, he is ready to step back into it.

(Top photo: Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images)

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