I won’t blame you if you tell me where to go with this one. I fully realise that I’m taking a walk on the wild side even contemplating what I’m about to say, let alone putting it out there for the canary world to see.
I think James Maddison is why we aren’t scoring.
*Just checking and I think the world is still spinning*
Yep.. we’re safe…
To put that into some form of perspective, I am by no means saying he’s the only reason we’re not scoring. The ultra-slow build-up that allows defences an ice age to get themselves set up is an article in itself. Comparisons to Chris Hughton’s record low-scoring attack, destroyer of centre-forwards, and with the sole tactic of “give it to shuffling Snodgrass” are becoming uncomfortably apparent.
For all his goalscoring heroics, fabulous free-kicks, and mesmerising dribbling, how many goals has he provided the assist from in open play this season? Off the top of my head I remember a through-ball to Pritchard just after his brief return from injury, and him slipping in Murphy against Arsenal.
After that I’m genuinely struggling. Now whilst I’m sure my memory is probably letting me down a little and I’m sure that as soon as Gary pops this up online I’ll be reminded of one or two I have forgotten, it will be one or two.
For an attacking midfielder, a proponent of the much-discussed number 10 role, this is a woeful return over the course of a season. Sorry, but that’s true.
I know he gives us so much more. Without his goals, his deadball delivery, we would be teetering on the brink of relegation, no question. Player of the season? It’s a one-horse race. No brainer.
The problem I see with Maddison is that as he’s grown in confidence, he’s taking more and more responsibility on those young shoulders. And why wouldn’t he? Most of the time he’s the only one who looks remotely capable of providing that all-too elusive breakthrough. And therein lies the rub.
Because as our search for a goal becomes ever more desperate, particularly late on in games, if Maddison has the ball at his feet in the final third, he’s not looking to hand that ball off to the supporting cast that have failed so often. He has one thing in mind. Wriggle into enough space to be able to draw his foot back and let fly.
He’s not being selfish, just logical.
None of us would rather see another player take a pop at goal. Unless your bucket list contains catching a football and you’re on the front row of the upper tier when Alex Tettey is revving up for a boomer.
But if we all know that Maddison is going to shoot if he possibly can, then so do the opposition, and they counter it by throwing bodies in front of him. And it works for the most part.
With a wall of bodies in front of him, even if Madders wanted to try and play in a striker he’s trying to thread the eye of a needle, so he either hammers it goalwards or pulls out and lays the ball off wide. And with wingers and full backs who don’t cross well anyway (or don’t have the confidence to – Jamal Lewis, I’m looking at you and wishing you believed in yourself as much as the fans believe in you – but I digress) the move usually comes to nothing.
With all that attention close to goal Maddison retreats deeper to find that space that he needs to try and create. And invariably with those slaloming, low-centre-of-gravity, show-them-left-show-them-right runs, he evades his marker and can turn towards goal. But by that stage the view he has ahead of him is of a striker usually miles away, Tettey or Moritz Leitner at best, in the same area of pitch as him, and Josh Murphy, and (if he’s lucky and we’re playing with four at the back and an extra man in attack), one other player who may be options for him going forward. Not too tricky for an opposition defence to pick them up and nullify us.
Wes Hoolahan, at his age, is by no means an answer or viable alternative. But what his brief cameo at the end of the game against Forest showed is how you can inject some pace and urgency into the role without carrying the entire team on your back as Maddison appears to be trying to do.
A veteran of playing the number ten role, off a central striker, Wes doesn’t have the shooting power that Maddison has and so has always looked for ways to play others in rather than shoot himself. As such as soon as the ball is played to him he is looking for ways to make that killer pass. Maddison is looking for an angle to shoot. Two different styles but one has traditionally resulted in more goals than the other.
Maddison, without a shadow of a doubt, has the ability to spot these balls and play them in, but somewhere along the way he’s taken the weight of the team on his back and is trying to do too much himself.
The result is counter-productive. The strikers know when Madders gets the ball in the final third that he’s going to look to have a pop and the defenders are going to throw themselves in the way. They either stop making runs off the shoulder of the defender knowing he won’t release it to them anyway or pull to the side to try and at least drag a defender out of the way of the expected shot. This then pulls them out of the way for a pass, or even to pick up a rebound off the keeper.
Contrast to Hoolahan, in the number ten role in his pomp, and the defenders were more concerned with picking up a Cameron Jerome or Nelson Oliviera for the pass to come than closing down Wes because he was unlikely to shoot (and if he did it was usually an easily-saved daisy cutter).
Alex Pritchard was a happy medium, and even more problematic for defenders because he could shoot from outside the box, but equally had the guile to play a man in. On his day he was a nightmare for the opposition, which is why we made a tidy profit on him despite his relatively low appearance tally and injury history for us.
Maddison has this ability to be a similar threat but at the moment he doesn’t trust those around him to finish off his hard work and has become one-dimensional.
He has to use his full range of skills if we are to break this vicious cycle. It’s commendable that he is trying to do everything himself, but he needs to be released from that responsibility. Ultimately it will benefit both him, and his teammates for Maddison to be less of a focal point.
Next season it’s very likely that we won’t have Maddison or Hoolahan to be that attacking pivot, which may prove to be a strange release, and allow Daniel Farke to bring in replacements that complement his system better, albeit they are almost certainly going to be less able footballers.
But sometimes your greatest strength, if relied upon too heavily, can prove your undoing.