With a Wembley final awaiting the winner, there is everything to play for in tonight’s Carabao Cup semi-final tie between Leicester City and Aston Villa.
The second leg, poised at 1-1 after a draw at the King Power Stadium three weeks ago, is also a match that will pit two England hopefuls, Villa captain Jack Grealish and Leicester playmaker James Maddison, against one another.
The pair have been exceptional throughout the season and will have ambitions of steering their teams to a cup final – and themselves to a place in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad.
Maddison has an advantage on that front already, having been involved in previous England squads, whereas Grealish, who switched allegiance from the Republic of Ireland in 2015, is seen as being in competition with Raheem Sterling, Jadon Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Marcus Rashford for a place out wide.
Although Grealish is capable of playing centrally, he has been deployed by Villa boss Dean Smith further forward this season on the left wing and to great effect.
It is where he started his career before being shifted into the centre of midfield during Villa’s spell in the Championship so that he could influence the game more.
However, on the 24-year-old’s return to the left wing he has still been heavily involved in games, contributing seven goals and five assists in 21 Premier League games so far.
It is more than the six goals and three assists provided by Maddison, 23, in 22 league games, and impressive given their teams are battling at opposite ends of the table.
The Leicester No10 did create more chances than anyone else in the league last season and is currently fourth on the list this season having created 55 chances, one more than Grealish.
It is one of a number of statistics that put the pair on par. Grealish has a shooting accuracy of 42.1 per cent to Maddison’s 44.4 per cent, while the former has a passing accuracy of 85.3 per cent to the latter’s 83.1 per cent.
They have both also averaged the exact same number of key passes per game with 2.6, which is defined as a pass that results in a shot on goal.
Just as Grealish has played a handful of games in central midfield this season, so has Maddison played several on the left.
But while there are clear similarities between two of England’s most exciting young attacking midfielders, there are also some stark differences, most notably in the way they play.
Considering their respective positions it is quite surprising that Maddison has made more than double the 76 crosses Grealish has this season with 175. It is likely attributable to Leicester’s eagerness to feed the prolific Jamie Vardy, as is his 17 through balls to Grealish’s none, which the Premier League defines “as a forward pass into an attacking area behind an opponents’ defence”.
Grealish with the edge?
While Maddison is more likely to play through balls from deeper and split defences, Grealish is now playing in a position to run onto those through balls, cut inside and take defenders on.
The 24-year-old has completed 2.3 dribbles per game to Maddison’s 1.7 and is the most fouled player in the league by far this season with an average of 4.8 per match. Maddison is joint second on 3.1 alongside Wilfried Zaha.
Another key feature of Grealish’s game more difficult to quantify is his leadership. The Villa captain is tenacious and wears his heart on his sleeve, often stepping up when his team are in need of inspiration. He is also not afraid to get his hands dirty, demonstrated by his six yellow cards to Maddison’s two; neither have been sent off.
While Maddison is just over a year younger and still has room to grow in this department, Grealish has accumulated a vast amount of experience and captained one of the country’s traditionally bigger clubs all while still relatively young.
Ultimately, England have two exceptional talents on their hands to add to Southgate’s array of attacking options who could play together in the same team and will both be knocking on the door come the next international break.
Unfortunately for Grealish, his Leicester counterpart is a better fit for a position in a midfield trio where there is less competition than out on the left wing – a position typically occupied Sterling or Rashford. His quality and leadership skills, however, suggest he is a prime candidate to affect a match from the bench.
Tonight their teams compete for a place in the Carabao Cup final, and on a personal level, it will be an opportunity to showcase their individual quality. Southgate, surely, will be watching.