A few weeks ago, David Beckham graced the Old Trafford pitch for the first time in years.
Beckham was playing in a charity game between United’s treble-winning side of 1999 (well, most of it) and a cobbled-together Bayern legends team. He played well, scoring a lovely goal and more importantly, whipping in some delightful crosses. It was a stark reminder of what is now missing from Manchester United’s current set-up: relentless creativity.
As a squad, Manchester United have a lot wrong with them. The defensive issues are well-known. They’ve been crying out for a centre-back for some time now and have just one good full-back. And everyone knows they want to add more pace into their attack as well. But the team’s biggest flaw is that they have no one who is just relentlessly creative with the ball.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, if United couldn’t play on the fast-break (whether because of injuries or the opponent’s tactical set-up), then they couldn’t really consistently generate good chances. Wolves took all the wind out of Solskjaer’s sails simply by parking the bus and denying the Red Devils space to attack into, so United flailed hopelessly against their defence, trying and failing to find a way through in open play and even more so from set-pieces.
So, while United pursued Jadon Sancho and will likely sign Daniel James, and while they have made their intentions clear to reinforce the defence, as well, they didn’t seem to be addressing their major creative flaw. Paul Pogba is an exceptional talent, but he is more capricious in nature and, like United’s forwards, is at his best in transition. Moreover, he is not a reliable creator from set-pieces. Pogba suffers when the forwards suffer, so is not the solution.
Enter James Maddison.
The 22-year-old Englishman only joined Leicester from Norwich a year ago but his first season in the Premier League was a remarkable one. Far from being tentative in his first taste of the big time, Maddison took to the Premier League like a duck to water. Even as Leicester suffered through tragedy off the field and tactical struggles on it under Claude Puel, the Englishman remained a constant creator.
In fact, no one in the Premier League – not Pogba (55), not Bernardo Silva (71), not even Eden Hazard (98) created as many chances as James Maddison. The Englishman finished the season with exactly 100 chances created, the third-most among all players in Europe’s top five leagues.
But it’s not just that he created chances, it’s how he created them. Forty-eight of Maddison’s 100 chances created were from set-pieces. Forty-eight! That is more than anyone else in the Premier League and made Leicester a dangerous side even when their football wasn’t as free-flowing as some would have liked. And when it was free-flowing? Suddenly, fouling Leicester became a dangerous game indeed.
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Because not only can Maddison conjure wonder from set-pieces, but he can score from them, too. He managed three goals this season from direct free-kicks, which is more than anyone else in the Premier League. So, whether shooting or passing, Maddison can make it happen.
And this would benefit United hugely. The Red Devils, as a team, created just 38 chances from set-pieces in 2018/19.
That’s the third-worst in the league and fewer than Maddison managed as one individual person. Signing him would increase their set-piece creativity by over 100%.
Oh, and guess what else Maddison outdoes Manchester United at? Scoring free-kicks. Yup. United have scored just the two this season.
You can see where he would bring a Beckham-esque creativity to the United midfield. Whether that’s playing alongside Pogba, or even instead of Pogba if the Frenchman does depart Old Trafford.
Maddison will be a creative talisman no matter who he’s played with. You could even stick him out wide if you really want to hammer the Beckham thing in, but playing him centrally makes more sense as it puts him at the heart of the action, able to control the tempo of the side’s play as well as provide killer set-pieces.
While Maddison isn’t as otherworldly talented as Pogba is, his creative power (52 chances created from open play is just three behind Pogba’s total) that is focused around a supreme set-piece ability means that he would be an even more consistent and constant source of creativity than the Frenchman. He would be a constant flow of ideas for a Manchester United midfield in desperate need of them.
The reported £60m valuation is a small price to pay (in the current market) for a player who would light up your entire attack from every single area of play. United would do well to move quickly and secure him before other top six clubs (who can offer Champions League football) get involved.
And hey, maybe part of the pitch is giving him the no. 7 shirt that set-piece sorcerer David Beckham made oh so famous. Wouldn’t that be fun?