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Harry Maguire has not excelled at Old Trafford but he can play a key part in Man Utd’s recovery

February 14, 2020

AFTER 34 starts, Harry Maguire has played at least four games more than any other Manchester United player this season. That the next is Victor Lindelof should indicate a much-needed, settled central defensive partnership for United.

Aaron Wan Bissaka’s third place in the appearance list should strengthen that theory further, along with goalkeeper David De Gea being one place behind. Granted United’s left back position has been occupied by four different men, but the rest of the defence is settled after years of uncertainty. 

United’s defensive record isn’t that bad, conceding 29 goals, although far too many from set pieces. Manchester City have conceded the same number while Chelsea, United’s opponents on Monday who are fourth, have let in five more. And though United have won only one league game so far this year, they’ve managed seven clean sheets in the last nine games where Maguire and Lindelof have started together.

“It’s great to play with Harry,” said Lindelof this week. “He’s a fantastic player. For every game we play together, we become better and better. Hopefully, we can keep improving and help the team get more clean sheets and get more results.” Colour by numbers quotes, but effective defensive partnerships are not built in a single season.

United’s chief concerns appear to lie further forward where injuries have hit hardest. Scott McTominay protects the defence better than Andreas Pereira, while Paul Pogba has quicker feet than any other to get out of tight spaces. Not having them in front makes life more difficult for the defenders, though Maguire and Lindelof are both comfortable with bringing the ball out, even of the latter can get muscled off the ball.

Maguire started brightly in a red shirt and he was clearly hurt when the team surrendered a lead at Southampton to draw. He said it wasn’t good enough for Manchester United and he was right but while Maguire’s stats look impressive, he’s looked more jaded recently. With 13 more games for England this season and the European championships to follow, Maguire will appreciate this two-week winter break. 

Expectations were high for the 26-year-old given he was the most expensive defender in the world, surpassing Virgil van Dijk’s fee. But while Van Dijk was a transformative signing for Liverpool and is now considered the best central defender in the world, Maguire has been… alright. Nothing more, nothing less.  

United’s recently appointed captain is still in his first season at a new, troubled club so it’s not easy for him. The transfer fee wasn’t his fault either and was so big because successful Leicester City don’t need to sell anyone. I watched them two weeks ago against Chelsea and spoke to fans. Did they miss Maguire? Not really, a view echoed by former Leicester captain Matt Elliot.

“People were worried when Harry Maguire left. They wondered whether (captain) Wes Morgan would be able to play enough games. But Caglar Soyuncu came through and he’s been exemplary, his pace, power and aggression have been super.”

Soyuncu benefits from playing alongside Jonny Evans, a lifelong Manchester United fan who cost the club nothing and didn’t want to leave after one bad season in 2015. He went to West Brom for £6 million, an offensively low fee and how United have missed him.

Chris Smalling also left United on loan to Roma last September and is now the best defender in Italy. Confident players tend to hit their stride. Players getting hammered by their own fans as scapegoats, which happened with Smalling and Evans, less so. 

Maguire is not a bad signing. Manchester City wanted him (and, less understandably) Alexis Sanchez) for a reason. City decided they’d been priced out (for both). That United bagged Maguire was welcomed by United fans. Axel Tuanzebe wasn’t a fully-formed defender, while Phil Jones is injured too much. Jones and Smalling had seen their stock drop badly among fans. 

But Maguire needs to do more. With his height, he should be a threat at set-pieces, but he’s scored only one United goal, a cracking shot with his foot, not his head, from distance against Tranmere Rovers in the recent FA Cup game.  Maguire can blame poor delivery from said set pieces, but he still doesn’t attack the ball like he does when playing for England. 

Maguire can hardly not admit there is more than a chink in United’s armour. “We’ve been poor from set-plays with our defending and we’ve had a couple of great goals scored against us from outside the box.” He said that in an interview this week where he spoke of his improved partnership with Lindelof and an improved defence. 

So what is Maguire good at? He’s solid in the air, he’s vocal, he’s reliable, he looks like he has a nasty edge that the team lacks. Maguire reads the game well, he’s reasonably fast, though one former United defender told me last week: “I wonder how he’d do playing against Marcus Rashford. I doubt he’d be quick enough and if you’re really quick you’d just play off Maguire’s shoulder. Maguire’s been 7/10, but tell me what his stand out performances were? I also worry what will happen against a very top team when Brandon Williams or Luke Shaw bomb forward and leave space behind – space which can be exploited.”  

Maguire always felt that Sir Alex Ferguson’s advice given in a phone call when he was at a low ebb was crucial to his development. He wanted to join United and pushed for it when Leicester wanted to keep him. He’s playing in a team that have won only nine of their 25 league games. This wasn’t what he signed up for any more than Paul Pogba did in 2016, but Maguire can be a key player in a genuine United recovery, an experienced head to help the youngsters. That can come next season, but United still have much to play for and cannot afford to fade badly as they did last term and the season before.