Daniel Levy admitted in his end-of-season letter at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season that Tottenham Hotspur “lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our [the club’s] DNA”. And while the club experienced some upward trajectory in Antonio Conte’s tenure, it really wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that Levy doubled down on his word by appointing Ange Postecoglou as Spurs’ new manager. With Postecoglou at the helm, Spurs made it clear that their next manager was going to be one with a “fast, attacking style of play” as well as one with a “strong track record of developing players and an understanding of the importance of the link from the academy”.
In that light, their recruitment and purchase of James Maddison makes a great deal of sense. Tottenham have historically been a club that predicates themselves on all-out attacking football. Until recent years, Spurs were known as a team who leans more on their attack than their defense, playing a free-flowing, attacking style of play. Enter Maddison — a player who demands the ball in the middle of the field, who can unlock defenses, and put in passes inside and over back lines almost like he has eyes on the back of his head. With the way he plays, Maddison nearly comes off as arrogant. However, his trajectory in England has been anything but – he has answered the call and risen to the challenge every step of the way from his days in League One at his boyhood club of Coventry all the way to being a key player in Leicester’s European qualification campaigns.
Maddison was a player whom Spurs had an interest going back to the Pochettino days, and they probably should have gone in for him then. At the time, Christian Eriksen’s tenure with the club was winding down and the Danish midfield creator made it clear that he was looking for a new challenge. Moving on from Eriksen in the number ten role and replacing him with Maddison felt like a move that made too much sense in Pochettino’s fast-paced 4-2-3-1. The move never happened and it really took until this past week for Spurs to fill the creative void in the squad present since Eriksen departed for Inter Milan in 2020.
Maddison officially arrived at Spurs from Leicester last week for £40m. Given his creative ability paired with the fact that he comes as a proven Premier League talent, it’s a great deal. Maddison is a homegrown player who immediately can fulfill a variety of roles for Postecoglou. He can operate as an advanced number eight (more on this shortly), a prototypical number ten and can also provide cover out wide for the likes of Dejan Kulusevski.
Figuring out how Postecoglou will line Spurs up this coming season is somewhat of a mystery at this time given how much work is left to do with the squad, both in moving players on and adding reinforcements in before the end of the transfer window. (Editor’s note: see also Matty Flatt’s article about possible Ange tactics.) In his managerial career, Postecoglou has played three at the back before but majority of the time he has preferred a two-man central defender partnership in a back four. If we were to replicate the style of his most-recent Celtic team, Spurs would likely have a three man midfield with two number eights who advance up the pitch and force the opposition from getting out of their defensive half. Typically, Postecoglou had attacking number eights who could not only play on the ball and advance up the pitch but also chip in with goal contribution. This would be music to the ears of Maddison who is among the Premier League’s leaders in goal contributions (goals + assists) over the past couple of seasons.
Looking at the squad currently, Spurs’ corps of midfielders suits more of a pragmatic, defensive playing style. With a midfield three and Maddison in the fold, the profiles for midfielders in the squad become a little bit more versatile. Last season, the trio who played most of the minutes were Rodrigo Bentancur, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Oliver Skipp. Out of the three, Bentancur looks most primed for a role under Postecoglou – not just because he is the most talented of the three, but because of his ball-playing and attacking capabilities. Furthermore, Hojbjerg has been linked with a departure from the club with two years remaining on his deal. And for Skipp, while many have high hopes for him, the young midfielder who could benefit the most from Ange’s style of play is 21-year-old Pape Matar Sarr.
While Spurs supporters will welcome the new style of play and anticipate getting back to playing “the Tottenham way”, the reality is that it could be a bumpy beginning for Spurs as the squad refreshes and gets used to a new manager and style of play. While Maddison has had minor and, unfortunately, recurring injuries in recent seasons, you can almost guarantee that he will be one of the first names in the starting XI once Spurs get into a groove. Rather than paying big money – especially due to the Premier League tax – on a player overseas, Tottenham know what they are getting from a player like Maddison. At 26, this is a player who has logged nearly 2500 minutes and been a contributor to 77 goals in the Premier League.
Seasons ago when Spurs were a young squad, playing attacking football under Pochettino, there were numerous Spurs players in the England team. Today, Harry Kane is the only consistent player in the side. Maddison is another option for Spurs to put forward in the England international set-up. The two are friends, and it would not be surprising at all if the friendship they developed in England is a factor as Kane decides whether to stay another year at Tottenham.
There’s a lot of time left in the window and Spurs clearly aren’t done revamping the squad. That said, the transfer of Maddison indicates a real intent to play a more progressive and attacking style as exemplified by Postecoglou. This is the type of move that makes all of the sense in the world. Finally, Spurs have a player who can make things tick in the middle of the pitch as well as a manager who will be looking exploit that ability in a new style of play.
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