Harry Maguire: The Indispensable One


In order to understand just how influential Harry Maguire is to Manchester United, it is worth talking about a match that they played just a few months prior to his arrival, the second leg versus Barcelona in the quarter finals of the Champions League in 2018/19.

United went into that game trailing 0-1 from the first leg at Old Trafford, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the manager, as well as some of the fans talked up the last time United were at the Camp Nou, the historic 1999 Champions League final in which they made that improbable, memorable comeback.

What followed was an anti-climax, with United barely mustering 400 passes throughout the game while being utterly overwhelmed in the midfield. A couple of uncharacteristic David De Gea errors gifted Barcelona two early goals and they went on to win 3-0, securing a 4-0 aggregate win in the process.

While watching that game, the first thing that would have struck the viewer would have been the general sense of chaos in United’s defensive structure. The team that day had a central defensive partnership of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, two extremely error prone players, with the left back spot occupied by a converted winger Ashley Young and the right back spot taken by usual centre back Victor Lindelof.

Changes were needed, and in his first transfer window as permanent manager, Solskjaer identified central defence as the first position where he needed reinforcements and an injection of quality. So, in came Harry Maguire, for a fee that remains, till date, the most that has been spent on a defender.

Maguire’s club career had been modest until joining Manchester United, having come through the youth ranks at Sheffield United, before spells at Hull City and Leicester City (with a short loan spell at Wigan Athletic in between). It was at Leicester City where he first came to wider prominence, with then United manager Jose Mourinho showing an interest in buying him in the summer of 2018, before the club pulled out considering the asking price untenable. A year later, United had their man.

What Maguire brings to the club is something they had been lacking since the halcyon days of the Ferdinand Vidic pairing, a tough, robust defender who could dominate opposition strikers aerially while also being capable of playing the ball out of the defence.

The other, and arguably more important attribute, he brings is his general fitness, being capable of playing 90 minutes every time without a noticeable drop off in intensity. This is crucial because United have struggled with injuries to central defenders prior to his arrival with no manager able to settle on a stable partnership. He played every minute of the 2019/20 season and 34/38 matches of the 2020/21 season before an untimely injury curtailed his club season.

To briefly illustrate his availability relative to others, Maguire has already made more league appearances than his fellow central defender Eric Bailly in spite of joining the club three seasons later than him.

The other unquestionably superior aspect of his game is his aerial ability, especially in defensive duels. He averages 3.6 aerial duels won per game which adds up to around 220 duels won across the season. This is again important, because his usual partner Victor Lindelof isn’t especially dominant in the air.

The third attribute that Maguire brings to the team is his ball playing skills, especially the variety of his passing, whether it be playing short passes to either of the fullbacks (Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka) or bypassing the midfield and pinging a ball into space for Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood to run into.

This is reflected in his passing accuracy which is always around the 87-89% mark while averaging 64 passes per game, and from a team viewpoint, it allows him to play as an auxiliary deep lying playmaker at times in the absence of a defensive midfielder. (Contrary to popular perception, neither of Fred or Scott McTominay are specialist defensive midfielders)

The only tactical weakness in Maguire’s game is his relatively low number of tackles made (less than 1 per game on average) though that can be attributed to his good positioning which means he doesn’t need to make many tackles. Offensively, he tends to win a lot of headers when coming up for set pieces but struggles to keep those headers on target leading to only five goals scored across two seasons.

The last aspect that needs to be addressed is the media and fan perception of him being an overpaid signing. While there is no doubt that £80 million is indeed a lot of money to spend on one player, it is often forgotten that the player himself doesn’t have any control over that value. Players, at the end of the day, should be judged on their ability, not on a number they have no tangible control over.

Unfortunately, it took an injury to Maguire for it to become obvious just how crucial he is to United’s defensive structure. In the four league games that he missed at the end of the season, the team ended up conceding 8 goals, but it wasn’t just the numbers, it was the uncertainty and panic in the defending that came back which had been largely eradicated from the team after his arrival.

To conclude, it can be reasonably argued that Harry Maguire is Manchester United’s most indispensable player, even more than Bruno Fernandes, because a defensive unit thrives on stability and playing together match after match and Maguire is, without question, the lynchpin of United’s defensive unit.

Written by Avitaj Mitra

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