Sometimes a scenario perfectly fits a player, and on 36 minutes, James Maddison received the ball in England’s half and spun away from his marker into space. As the Ukrainian defenders retreated, the Wembley pitch yawned open in front of him and for the first time in the match – his first start for England – Maddison had a canvas on which to create.
He surged forwards while surveying his options. Directly ahead was Harry Kane, but the pass would need to be carefully threaded through Ukraine’s centre-backs. To his right was Bukayo Saka, lurking on the shoulder of his full-back ready to burst into space. Maddison continued towards the box at full tilt and began shaping his body to pass right, but just as he did so the ball lodged under his feet, and the momentum escaped. Barely a minute later, as if to illustrate how it should be done, Kane dropped deep and swept a pass out to Saka before racing into the box to score England’s opener.
This was by no means a microcosm of Maddison’s performance, which was mostly bright and sometimes crafty, playing in a free-ish role on the left side of a front three. At one point he tied Ukraine’s Taras Stepanenk in knots with a series of head-spinning Cruyff turns, and he produced another clever piece of footwork which sent Roman Yaremchuk down the Bakerloo Line before lashing the subsequent shot a little too high.
His goals and assists for Leicester are the output of someone who can play at a higher level and Southgate was certainly impressed with his “personality” for England. “He found the spaces well and he had a super game,” the manager said.
Yet it was a moment which pointed to part of the reason why Maddison has had to wait until 26 for his first England start, and why he has not appeared for his country in the three-and-a-half years since his only previous international cap. The bald truth is that Gareth Southgate doesn’t really need him. Maddison is in constant competition with a raft of other left-sided attackers like Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Phil Foden. And here, on a night when injuries had cleaned out most of them and presented a rare chance to play, it was not Maddison but Kane who best executed the job of the roving No 10.
Maddison’s talent is refined but his qualities are not necessarily unique when compared with the sum of the parts around him. Saka was outstanding whether stretching the game on the touchline or coming infield, from where he scored England’s majestic second goal. Jude Bellingham provided creative impetus and guile from midfield. Chilwell overlapped down the left and Kane linked play dropping deep. And so Maddison felt like a nice option to have – a smart touch here, a jinking turn there – without providing an essential ingredient.
None of this is Maddison’s fault. He is the victim of a common curse of international football where talent comes in uneven piles. Southgate has a similar problem in the opposite corner of the pitch where he could pick four right-backs and still leave out the one playing for the Premier League leaders right now, Ben White. The inverse is also often true: Spain’s World Cup-winning side of 2010 relied on the functional Joan Capdevilla at left-back by virtue of the defender being one of the few left-footed options with a Spanish passport at the time.
Whereas England are overflowing with attacking stock right now. Maddison may get more chances after what he described as his “second debut”, and perhaps on this performance he should. Certainly his England hiatus feels a little wasteful. But Southgate has strong loyalties with Sterling and will find it impossible to ignore the form of Rashford should his flow of goals continue into the next round of games in June. A lot can change by then, but it would take a seismic shift for England to be in real need of the neat and tidy touches of James Maddison, a sublime and surplus talent.