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Harry Maguire: Is criticism of him warranted?

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As 2020 drew to a close, it is a year that has been rather mixed for many people, but especially if you are Manchester United captain, Harry Maguire. A year and a half has passed since he became the record transfer signing for a defender and the jury is still out on the England centre-half. 

When United suffer a poor result, the blame is often on the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Very narrowly behind is Maguire. However, is this justified?

To start with, we need to understand why United spent so much on him. It was no secret that at the end of the 2018/19 season, the Red Devils were crying out for defensive reinforcements. Former manager, Jose Mourinho, had spent over £30 million on each of Eric Bailly and Victor Lindelof, as well as Nemanja Matic just in front of them, but neither had helped the situation. At the end of that season, United had conceded 54 goals in the league, a record for the club in the league. A wretched end to the season, left them in sixth place, out of the champions league positions. They needed a centre half. 

As soon as that season ended the rumour mill began. United were in for Maguire and finally, after what seemed like the most protracted negotiation in the history of football, he signed from Leicester on the 5th of August for £80 million. Was any other defender available? Probably not for United. They had their heart set on Maguire, and his stock was high after an impressive showing at the World Cup for England and a very good season for Leicester. He made his debut in an impressive showing as United seemingly laid down a marker, beating Chelsea 4-0 on the opening day of the season. 

United fans will have been hoping that result would have been a sign of what to come. However, Maguire has suffered mix fortunes since joining the 20-times English champions. Maguire was brought into the club to provide a physical presence in the middle of a very brittle defence. His leadership was widely praised at Leicester and leadership was sorely lacking at Old Trafford. Whilst results didn’t immediately follow, his leadership was appreciated. The defensive lapses were not. Going 14 games without a clean sheet had left United fans tearing their hair out. When United lost 2-0 to Burnley at Old Trafford near the end of January, it seemed as though Solskjaer’s time was at a conclusion. However, the arrival of Bruno Fernandes would change everything. Maguire was made club captain on the 17 January and although he’d captained the side many times before that, Fernandes’ arrival brought a leadership on the pitch. A follow my lead type style of leadership. A winning mentality. 

United would go on to keep four clean sheets in a row, three of those against Manchester City, Wolves and Chelsea. They would not lose in the league for the rest of the season. Before the national lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic, United had only conceded two goals in 11 games, since that Burnley game. Maguire and Lindelof had seemingly settled, but in a microcosm of United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Maguire’s form after project restart would be concerning to say the least. He’d become a cult hero of sorts as he helped deliver food packages to individuals who needed it during the pandemic, but his first game after the lockdown saw Spurs’ Steven Bergwijn burst past him and score past David De Gea with so much ease, it caused Roy Keane to exclaim that he “wouldn’t let them back on the bus”.

As harsh as the criticism might have been, Maguire’s immobility continued to be even more evident. It was as if the three months without football helped truly highlight this and the worries haven’t gone away. United fans have clamoured for Eric Bailly or Axel Tuanzebe to be partnered with Maguire. Lindelof doesn’t have the pace needed to play next to Maguire and yet despite that worrying goal at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, United would finish the season conceding 36 goals, 18 goals fewer than the season before. An improvement perhaps, but only two seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson left have the club have seen a worse tally. One thing was obvious, it was a long way off what was required. 

Now stats like that can be misleading, so what about Maguire’s stats against one his peers. Perhaps Virgil van Dijk last season? Van Dijk was the focal point of Liverpool’s runaway title winning side and the 2018/19 PFA player of the year. Before his potentially season ending injury earlier this year, the Dutchman was widely considered to be the best defender in the world. 

Both players played every game in their team’s season, with Maguire being part of 13 clean sheets, Van Dijk 15. There were only three goals conceded separating the two. Maguire with 36 and Van Dijk 33. Interestingly, Maguire had a better tackle success rate (62% to 52%) and made more interceptions (72 to 40). He also (just) won more duels (240 to 239) but lost more duels (128 to 81). One big criticism levelled at Maguire is that he lacks a true presence in United’s own box, but the stats wouldn’t wholly agree with that. Maguire won 176 aerial battles to Van Dijk’s 190 and lost slightly more (71 to 60). Maybe the most surprising was that Maguire had not made any errors leading directly to a goal, whereas Van Dijk had one. 

As I mentioned before, stats can be misleading. No one is questioning that Van Dijk had a much better season than Maguire or any defender for that matter. You can read the stats in a number of ways. Liverpool’s intensity suffered greatly after the lockdown with the league already as good as sewn up. United were put under more pressure so Maguire would have more duels and interceptions to deal with. Nonetheless, it does show that on the surface Maguire has improved the United defence and statistically at least, didn’t have quite the awful season as was being made out.  

United ran out of steam, but reinforcements were expected for the new season. Pushing on from three semi-finals and third place was expected, but things got off to the worst possible start when Maguire was arrested in Greece for his involvement in a fight. It was totally out of character and shocked all that knew him. His form on his return was to be expected. Poor. Summed up by the shocking 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford, United were in disarray once again. However, as so often during Maguire’s short United career, his form and the teams turned around once more.

United are now up to second, just three points behind Liverpool and with a game in hand. The international break immediately after the Tottenham game saw him see red against Denmark for England, but since then Maguire has played well. Steady if not great. Stats alone show that he has won 64 from 80 aerial duels this season, a far better ratio then last season. There have been some horror moments. The Istanbul game will want to be forgotten, as will the first 30 minutes vs Leipzig, but all in all Maguire has looked more assured. His passing has gained more notice, also. At times last season he looked unsure what to do with the ball at his feet. Now he seems adept at hitting a long ball and more than happy to run the ball out of defence. 67 accurate long balls can attest to that

The last three games have also seen Bailly step into the centre half position with Maguire. Two of the three games have ended with clean sheets. Bailly has seen a lot of praise go his way, but Maguire was rock solid as well. It is how Maguire seems to go through matches. If he’s bad, you can be certain that the world will know about, however, if he has a good game, it will often go unnoticed. 

After writing this it is still hard to truly judge Harry Maguire’s time at Manchester United. In his first season, United kept more clean sheets and conceded 18 less goals than the previous season. This season they will probably concede more than last season, but Maguire is playing better. Working out United since Sir Alex Ferguson is a conundrum itself. Maybe it was to be expected. Van Dijk joining Liverpool from Southampton for £75m and performing so well is probably an exception rather than the rule. Joining from a team not in Europe and turning into the best centre back in the world is not something that will happen every time. Maguire made the same mistakes now as he did at Leicester. The difference? When you’re playing for Leicester it isn’t magnified as much as when you’re an £80m signing for Manchester United.  

So, was Harry Maguire worth £80 million? Probably not. However, did United needed a more commanding centre back than they already had. Absolutely. If United go on to win trophies in the next couple of years, it may end up being money well spent. 

Written by Huw Rawlings

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