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Squad Depth: The Future of Manchester United’s Centre-Back Options

Manchester United have always relied on having strong squad depth to compete at the highest level in all competitions, whether that be the famous 2008/09 squad that featured the likes of Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Dimitar Berbatov, Carlos Tevez and Luis Nani, or squads from the past that featured legends such as Jaap Stam, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Phil and Gary Neville. However, in the past seven years or so United have arguably had little quality squad depth, and this is something that is important in every position on the field if trophies are the target.

Defensively, United have lacked two top class centre-backs since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic’s formidable partnership, but the signing of Raphael Varane alongside existing club captain Harry Maguire looks to have changed this.

Varane arrives at United boasting an impressive trophy haul from his time with Real Madrid, which includesfour Champions League trophies and three La Liga titles. Add this to his impressive international career, which includes a World Cup and being the youngest ever French captain, it’s clear Varane brings a winning mentality to United that is so desperately needed. United are without a league title since 2013 and haven’t lifted the coveted Champions League trophy since that fantastic night in Moscow in 2008, Varane could be the addition that finally ends the eight-year league drought.

Highly respected and revered at Los Blancos, Varane boasts an impressive defensive and disciplinary record. In his time with Real Madrid, the defender has only picked up 25 yellow cards, and impressively, two red cards. Bearing in mind that’s across 360 matches played for Madrid, his overall record is exemplary. This in itself is testament to the Frenchman’s maturity and level-headed approach to the game, something that is very evident from the interviews he’s given throughout his career, once stating to Real Madrid TV “I always want to play clean”. All of these factors combined paints a picture of a mature top-class player, a quiet leader, and more importantly- a winner.

It’s clear that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will look to quickly integrate a player of Varane’s quality into the starting XI, and naturally he will be paired with club captain Harry Maguire. The captain status and Maguire’s impressive run of form throughout last season practically makes him untouchable within the line-up. This new pairing of Maguire and Varane subsequently means that trusted starter Victor Lindelof will lose his place, and he may have a case for being frustrated.

Throughout his four-year tenure at United, Lindelof has never fully convinced the Old Trafford faithful of his ability to be a first-choice centre-back option. However, as of late Lindelöf looks to have had an upturn in form, perhaps personified by his excellent pin point ball to Bruno Fernandes in the opening game against Leeds, which led to Fernandes’s hat-trick.

Nicknamed the ‘The Iceman’, Lindelof has been mostly reliable amongst United’s back four, which is in dire contrast to fellow defender Eric Bailly. If Lindelöf is ‘the iceman’, Bailly is a firecracker- erratic, rash but possessing an undeniable level of quality. Bailly is a tenacious defender, stronger and much quicker than Lindelöf, at the surface level he seems to be the perfect partner for Maguire.

However, dig a little deeper and you see the awful injury record that Bailly has, missing several stretches of games at a time. A lack of consistency means Bailly cannot be considered as a starter, albeit seemingly possessing a high level of talent. A mix of Lindelöf’s reliability and coolness with Bailly’s speed and strength is what United need, and it seems Varane may be just that.

While Varane is nailed on to be a starter, improving United’s starting back four, his potential impact on Lindelof and Bailly could be one of the greatest effects. Solskjaer will hope the arrival of Varane may spur on the other defenders within the United contingent to up their game, which would benefit the quality in squad depth that the team possesses. United will be hoping that they may be able to replicate ‘the Alex Telles’ effect, a signing which almost certainly contributed to Luke Shaw’s incredible campaign last season. Genuine quality breeds even more quality, as the bar is raised so is the level required to stay in contention, and the presence of having a World Cup winner will hopefully bolster the performances of Lindelof and Bailly when selected.

This is vital if United are looking to win on all fronts, squad rotation will be key to avoiding injuries and keeping players fresh. In the past when United have shuffled around defensively, whether that be in cup games or as a matter of necessity, the backline has always seemed somewhat frail or unsure of itself. Solskjaer will hope that this will no longer be the case, with both Lindelof and Bailly having the extra motivation of needing to prove their quality if they want to have a chance of getting back into the starting line-up. 

Conversely, one potential issue that could arise is if either Lindelof or Bailly become disgruntled with being delegated to the bench. While it’s unlikely Lindelöf will grow frustrated, given all indications seem to point to a happy player, Bailly may look to leave the club if he is unable to get many opportunities this season. Bailly penned a new deal back in April this year, keeping him at the club until June 2024, however the international may not be all that happy if he’s denied game time. Signing the contract Bailly made it clear he had intentions of an injury free stint, claiming that he “loved the club”.

The 27-year-old also said he viewed the new contract as “a fresh challenge”, perhaps alluding to his troublesome injury history and how he is trying to move on from that. While Bailly has clear affections for the club, he may just find the signing of Varane less than four months after his contract renewal as a bit of a kick in the teeth. At 27, Bailly needs to be playing regular football if he is to stay at the top of his game, unfortunately United may not be the best place for that.

Away from more experienced players, United still have both Axel Tuanzebe and Teden Mengi within their ranks to consider. Both English centre-backs are still relatively young, Tuanzebe being 23 and Mengi 19, and the pair are touted as having a very high ceiling of talent. While Tuanzebe will be unavailable for selection this year, having just secured a third loan move to Aston Villa, it’s clear that United see a future at the club for Tuanzebe having also just signed a contract extension. While not starting in many games last season, Tuanzebe really impressed in the away win against Paris Saint-Germain, managing to deal with Kylian Mbappe’s blistering pace effectively.

In contrast, Mengi has spent most of his career so far impressing for the under 23’s, although did move to Derby County on loan in the second half of last season. The Manchester born academy graduate had put in a string of good performances before unfortunately having his loan move cut short due to a hamstring injury. Mengi’s future for this season is still undecided as of the time of writing this article, however it’s highly likely that the impressive youngster will go back out on loan to the Championship for this season.

A loan move playing regular Championship football will surely prove more beneficial than simply playing in the under 23’s for Mengi, likely exposing him to adversity and the realities of playing week in week out in front of a large crowd. United will hope both players will gain more valuable experience and playing time this season, so when the pair do return to United, they will provide fresh competition.Overall, the future looks bright for United defensively, and for the centre-back position, in particular.

The squad has gained a born winner with valuable experience in this window, and the hope is this will ignite a competitive spirit amongst the defensive ranks. The addition of more valuable loan experience for the likes of Tuanzebe also bodes well for the future, and with the quality of the current overall United team, United could finally be setup with a high quality, experienced backline for years to come.

Written by Sam Wilson

The Evolution of the Manchester United defence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer

Sir Alex Ferguson once said; “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Especially under Ferguson, United were always defined by a solid centre half partnership that became United’s rock for years. Since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has come in, he’s struggled to find the perfect partnership at the back, but with the improvement of Harry Maguire and the signing of Raphael Varane, can this be the pairing to restore this rock and potentially bring the titles back to Old Trafford?

In Solskjaer’s first season at the club he mainly used Phil Jones, Victor Lindelof, Chris Smalling and occasionally Eric Bailly. He started off using Jones and Lindelof but switched to Smalling at times. He clearly didn’t have a preferred pairing but he was consistent in his use of Lindelof; Lindelof became a key member of Solskjaer’s team as until the signing of Raphael Varane, Lindelof was always first choice in the defence.

To resolve this issue, Solskjaer looked to bring in a dominant and controlling centre half in the summer. This was secured through the world record fee for a defender of £80 million for Harry Maguire. To this day, Maguire is overlooked due to his price tag, but recent performances have boosted his reputation. Maguire and Lindelof became Solskjaer’s trusted pairing and played together for around two years. In these two years, United have become far better defensively.

As of the 7 March, Maguire had kept 24 clean sheets since the start of the previous season which was the highest out of any outfield player. Therefore, this shows with Maguire in the team United are greatly improved as his key characteristics like heading, positioning and leadership assure the players around him and keep the defence stable. However, despite these clean sheets, issues remained and United were making mistakes defensively.

To combat this, Solskjaer has seen Lindelof as the weak link and in recent days pushed for the purchase of Raphael Varane, four-time Champions League winner and one time World Cup winner with France. Solskjaer will hope this is the final player needed in a heavily invested defence and will look to create a partnership for years to come with Maguire and Varane as the duo.

The Partnerships:

Victor Lindelof and Phil Jones

Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire

Harry Maguire and Raphael Varane

Firstly, the partnership of Lindelof and Jones. Lindelof and Jones was a pairing that both understood the game well and could hold their own but under consistent pressure would fold. The major issue was height, it lacked ariel dominance especially in such a physical league as the Premier League.

Therefore, rough teams like Burnley might look to take advantage of their weak ariel ability, which has continued through to the Maguire and Lindelof partnership as Lindelof still gets bullied in the air seen, in particular, against West Bromwich Albion when Mbaye Diagne manhandled Lindelöf to score in the second minute of the game.

As a pairing it wasn’t of the United level especially with the duo’s that had come by in the past like Steve Bruce x Gary Pallister, Jaap Stam x Ronny Johnsen and Rio Ferdinand x Nemanja Vidic. Maguire’s signing the summer after illustrates the issues with the Jones and Lindelöf partnership as he is a known tall, strong, and aerially brilliant defender purchased to give United more height.

Lindelof and Maguire as a partnership were more successful. They created a solid connection, enabling them to be Solskjaer’s trusted pairing for just under two years and win many big games together. The lack of height in the previous duo was mostly rectified, as Maguire brought this, but Lindelof was still a liability in this air, but it wasn’t as obvious as Maguire could cover for him.

However, the main weakness with this duo was pace. Both Lindelof and Maguire lacked pace and thus were susceptible to being done by quick agile players or balls in behind. This lack of pace also prohibited the United backline from pushing higher up the pitch in fear of faster forwards exploiting the slower defenders and running the channels.

This ultimately has had a detrimental effect on United’s style of play as due to the weakness of this partnership, Solskjaer has looked to use Scott McTominay and Fred to cover them which slows down United’s ball progression and transition and limits their attacking force. Overall, it’s been a decent partnership but one that always had blatant issues and subsequently Solskjaer looked to sign Varane to solve this.

In recent days, United have managed to agree a deal with Real Madrid for Raphael Varane subject to a medical. Solskjaer will be hoping his signing solves the issues of previous seasons like pace and height. Varane is a quick centre half who is 6 foot 3 inches tall and quite good in the air. Therefore, next to Maguire he should provide that necessary recovery pace needed to play next to him.

Furthermore, unlike Lindelof, Varane is good in the air which means that he should adapt to the physicality and demand of the Premier League and may be able to deal with the tricky strikers like Chris Wood, Michail Antonio and Ashley Barnes better than Lindelof. In addition, due to Varane’s pace it will enable United to play a higher line as he has the recovery speed if a ball is played in behind. Therefore, this means United can push higher up the pitch, pressing more and also being less likely to be forced back into their own half.

Then finally, with Varane’s qualities, he will reassure Solskjaer which will enable him to play with a lone defensive midfielder rather than two defensive midfielders in a pivot as seen with McTominay and Fred. Thus helping United play, a more attacking style of football which will please the players and most importantly the fans as it fulfils the DNA of Manchester United football club.

Overall, I feel Solskjaer has gradually done well adapting and changing his defence in his United tenure, and with a back four of Luke Shaw, Maguire, Varane and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, I feel United could be far more secure and balanced defensively which will strengthen the team as a whole and may lead them on to have a successful season and potentially win silverware.

Written by Ethan Bents

January Review: Luke Shaw, Harry Maguire and Paul Pogba all had a good month despite mixed results for United

Manchester United played nine matches in January making it just as busy as December, where the same number of matches were played. United started the month with a 2-1 victory over Aston Villa in the Premier League, which was a good start to the month. However, a 2-0 defeat in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup at the hands of Manchester City added some disappointment to the month. United then beat Watford 1-0 in the Emirates FA Cup, earning a place in the fourth round against Liverpool. Next came a 0-0 draw against Liverpool in the Premier League, a frustrating match for both teams.

United then came from behind to beat Fulham 2-1 at Craven Cottage in the Premier League, putting more pressure on Liverpool this season, which would change as the month grew on. The FA Cup clash with Liverpool was a good match for United, resulting in a 3-2 victory, reaching the fifth round of the competition this season. Following that match, a 2-1 defeat to the worst team in the Premier League, Sheffield United came, which was a disappointment for United. The month was ended with a visit to the Emirates to face Arsenal, which resulted in a 0-0 draw, ending the month in a frustrating manner.

January Statistics:

Nine matches played; five wins, two draws and two defeats. 11 Premier League points won, a place in the fourth and fifth rounds of the Emirates FA Cup. 10 goals scored, eight goals conceded – four clean sheets. United entered 2021 in good form and were looking to get through another tough month in domestic competition. They were knockout of the Carabao Cup at the semi-final stage by Manchester City but reached the fourth and the fifth rounds of the Emirates FA Cup with victories over both Watford and Liverpool. In the league, United struggled at times with a defeat to Sheffield United and draws with Liverpool and Arsenal.

1 January – Manchester United 2-1 Aston Villa – Premier League

Goals: Anthony Martial 40′, Bruno Fernandes 62′; Bertrand Traore 58′

Assists: Aaron Wan-Bissaka 40′; Jack Grealish 58′

Manchester United beat Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford in the first Premier League match of 2021. Anthony Martial opened the scoring with a header in the 40th minute of the match (his fifth goal of the season), assisted by Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Villa then equalised in the 58th minute through Bertrand Traore, assisted by Jack Grealish. Minutes later, Paul Pogba was taken down in the box by Douglas Luiz and a penalty was given which Bruno Fernandes stepped up for, scoring his 15th goal of the season. Villa pressure United at the end of the match with United having chances to extend their lead.

6 January – Manchester United 0-2 Manchester City – Carabao Cup

Goals: John Stones 50′, Fernandinho 83′

Assists: N/A

Manchester United were beaten 2-0 by Manchester City in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup at Old Trafford. It was a pretty even first half with United starting well but City soon took control of the match. Both teams had the ball in the back of the net in the first half of the match but none were given. It took City 50 minutes, five minutes into the second half to draw first blood on United with John Stones scoring the first goal of the game. United had chances to get back into the game but did not take them. City doubled their lead through Fernandinho in the 83rd minute, earning a place in the first final of the season. Their go-to trophy.

9 January – Manchester United 1-0 Watford – Emirates FA Cup

Goals: Scott McTominay 5′

Assists: Alex Telles 5′

Manchester United beat Watford 1-0 in the Emirates FA Cup at Old Trafford. Scott McTominay, who captained United in this match, scored the only goal of the game in the fifth minute, assisted by Alex Telles from the corner. There were a few chances throughout the match but United seemed to be out of sorts, as were the visitors. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be happy to see his club into the fourth round of the FA Cup with the draw for that and the fifth round being drawn on Monday evening. United got back to winning ways after being knocked out of the Carabao Cup earlier in the week. Burnley next in the Premier League.

12 January – Burnley 0-1 Manchester United – Premier League

Goals: Paul Pogba 71′

Assists: Marcus Rashford 71′

Manchester United beat Burnley 1-0 at Turf Moor in the Premier League. It put Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side three points clear of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League table. Paul Pogba scored the only goal of the match after playing the ball out to Marcus Rashford on the right with the England forward playing back to the Frenchman whose effort was slightly deflected into the back of the net. Bruno Fernandes did not have the best of matches, but played a part. Anthony Martial will be a worry, coming off injured late into added time. The positivity is that United are top of the league and deserve it.

17 January – Liverpool 0-0 Manchester United – Premier League

Goals: N/A

Assists: N/A

Manchester United drew 0-0 with Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League. It was a game of few credible chances. Perhaps the best opportunity was from Bruno Fernandes after United won a free-kick in the first half of the match. The ball dipped towards the top far corner, just missing the target and seeing United frustrated. Marcus Rashford had a chance in the second half with Edinson Cavani splitting away from him, Rashford having the ball and the three defensive players and being marked off the ball with Cavani unmarked and in space which could have resulted in the first goal of the game, if he had it.

20 January – Fulham 1-2 Manchester United – Premier League

Goals: Ademola Lookman 5′; Edinson Cavani 21′, Paul Pogba 65′

Assists: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa 5′

Manchester United beat Fulham 2-1 at Craven Cottage in the Premier League. Ademola Lookman scored the opening goal in the fifth minute as United saw themselves on the back foot from the start of the match. However, it took 16 minutes for United to get back into the match with Bruno Fernandes launching a ferocious shot on goal, hitting the inside of the post only for Fred to keep the attack in play. Edinson Cavani was the equaliser for United, scoring his fifth goal of the season for his club. Paul Pogba scored what turned into the winner for United, with a sublime finish which was good to see.

24 January – Manchester United 3-2 Liverpool – Emirates FA Cup

Goals: Mason Greenwood 26′, Marcus Rashford 48′, Bruno Fernandes 78′; Mohamed Salah 18′, 58′

Assists: Marcus Rashford 26′, Mason Greenwood 48′; Roberto Firmino 18′, 58’

Manchester United beat Liverpool 3-2 in the fourth round of the Emirates FA Cup at Old Trafford. Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in the 18th minute of the match with Mason Greenwood equalising just eight minutes later. Marcus Rashford then put United ahead in the 48th minute with Salah striking once more in the 58th minute to level the score. From the bench, Bruno Fernandes found the winner from a free-kick which was such a great strike to beat Alisson for the third time in the match. This victory feels so good, not for Liverpool though. United will face West Ham United at Old Trafford in the next round.

27 January – Manchester United 1-2 Sheffield United – Premier League

Goals: Harry Maguire 64′; Kean Bryan 23′, Oliver Burke 74′

Assists: Alex Telles 64′; John Fleck 23′, John Lundstram 74′

Manchester United were beaten 2-1 by Sheffield United at Old Trafford. It was another bad day for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, who had been knocked off the top spot in the Premier League table by Manchester City on Tuesday evening. Kean Bryan opened the scoring for the Blades in the 23rd minute of the match with Oliver Burke scoring the winner in the 74th minute of the match. Harry Maguire equalised in the 64th minute of the match but in terms of inspiration, United were not up for the challenge in a dreadful evening at the Theatre of Dreams. United will need to pick up the pieces before get face Arsenal on Saturday.

30 January – Arsenal 0-0 Manchester United – Premier League

Goals: N/A

Assists: N/A

Manchester United drew 0-0 with Arsenal at the Emirates in the Premier League. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had the stronger team with Arsenal suffering with a few injuries. It was a game of few credible chances, something that will unnerve United, who have been playing a poor brand of football in their last two matches, resulting in a defeat and a draw. Arsenal will be the happier of thereto teams, winning four points and keeping two clean sheets against United this season. However, the gap between the two teams is still ten points, so Arsenal have a lot of work ahead of them to close the gap.

Luke Shaw – eight appearances (seven starts), 638 minutes, one MOTM award.

January was an impressive month for Luke Shaw. He made eight appearances, starting seven times, playing 638 minutes in total and winning the Man of the Match award in the 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield in the Premier League. Whilst it initially looked like Alex Telles would take the left-back role from Shaw earlier in the season, the English left-back has soon risen in stature to make the position his own. It is good to see him in form again, which has been ruined in the past with injury, fatigue and fitness issues. The player seems to have turned a corner at the club, which is great for both the player and the club.

Harry Maguire – nine appearances (eight starts), 765 minutes, one goal.

The Captain has been one of the most important players for the club in January. He made nine appearances, starting eight times, playing all but 45 minutes for the club in January. Harry Maguire played a total of 765 minutes during January, coming off the bench at half time against Watford in the FA Cup. He scored United’s only goal in the 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United, a former club of the defender. United kept four clean sheets in January, three of those in the Premier League, which was important for United to continue their improvement, which stuttered at the end of the month.

Paul Pogba – eight appearances (eight starts), 720 minutes, two goals and two MOTM awards.

December was a positive month for Paul Pogba, but January was something he built because of the prior month. The Frenchman missed just one match, the FA Cup victory over Watford. Pogba’s best performances in January came in the Premier League, scoring goals against Burnley and Fulham and being named the Man of the Match in both of those matches. Against Aston Villa at the start of the month, Pogba won a penalty, which Bruno Fernandes scored, enabling the Red Devils to win the match which was a great start for the club in January. Pogba will be seeking to make February a positive month for the club too.

Notable Mentions: Eric Bailly, Alex Telles, Scott McTominay

Eric Bailly had a good January, in the matches that he did play in, playing a total of 315 minutes in four appearances during the month and earning one Man of the Match award for his performance against Aston Villa in which United won 2-1. Bailly could be a good partner for Harry Maguire at the club, providing he can stay fit. Alex Telles was another notable mention, making two appearances, playing a total of 172 minutes on the pitch and assisting twice. Scott McTominay was the final notable mention, making eight appearances, playing 453 minutes of football, scoring one goal and winning one Man of the Match award – against Watford.

Who is your Player of the Month for January 2021?

A look at what lies ahead in February…

United will play eight matches in February, one less than in both December and January. United will continue their efforts in the Premier League, facing Southampton (H), Everton (H), West Bromwich Albion (A), Newcastle United (H) and Chelsea (A), also vying to reach the quarter-final of the Emirates FA Cup, providing they beat West Ham United (H). Solskjaer’s side will also play their first matches in the UEFA Europa League, facing Real Sociedad both away and at home in the round of 32 stage of the competition, hoping to reach the round of 16 stage, following their group stage exit from the UEFA Champions League.

2 February – Southampton, Old Trafford – Premier League

6 February – Everton, Old Trafford – Premier League

9 February – West Ham United, Old Trafford – Emirates FA Cup

14 February – West Bromwich Albion, The Hawthorns – Premier League

18 February – Real Sociedad, Anoeta Stadium – UEFA Europa League

21 February – Newcastle United, Old Trafford – Premier League

25 February – Real Sociedad, Old Trafford – UEFA Europa League

28 February – Chelsea, Stamford Bridge – Premier League

Written by John Walker

Harry Maguire: Is criticism of him warranted?

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

Harry Maguire explains Manchester United turning point this season

Manchester United captain Harry Maguire has stated that Bruno Fernandes’ arrival at the Theatre of Dreams during the January transfer window was the crucial turning point of the club this season. The Portuguese midfielder has played 19 times for United since he arrived, scoring ten goals and eight assists. He has experienced defeat just once; in the Emirates FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley last weekend. United have been a different animal since Fernandes arrived.

United beat Maguire’s former club Leicester City 2-0 at the King Power Stadium on Sunday afternoon which confirmed their third place finish in the Premier League and therefore a place in the UEFA Champions League next season, after a season out of the competition. United scored in the 71st minute of the match after Anthony Martial was fouled in the box with Fernandes scoring the penalty. The victory was secured by Jesse Lingard in the dying seconds of the match, scoring the second goal. Speaking about Fernandes’ arrival being United’s turning point, Maguire, reported by The Mirror, said:

“Bringing Bruno [Fernandes] in, in January made a big difference. We’ve worked tirelessly hard on the training ground but we dropped so many points where we shouldn’t have dropped points.”

United have problems in defence, which was a problem area last season after the club conceded 54 goals in the Premier League alone. Maruire’s £80 million arrival from Leicester last summer has gone in the right direction to solve some problems but more work will be required. However, if you look at the statistics, going from conceding 54 goals in the 2018/19 season to conceding just 36 in the 2019/20 season must be seen as an improvement, surely? Maguire, talking about defending, said:

“We’ve improved on set piece defending a lot, aside from the late goal at Southampton.

“We’ve achieved what we set out to at the start of the season, finish third in the Premier League, but that’s always the least this club should be aiming for.”

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was tasked to guide the club to Champions League football next season, which during the coronavirus pandemic looked like an impossibility, from their league position. They have clawed back the 14 point lead Leicester had on them, leapfrogging them by four points to get where they needed to be. That shows signs of the club improving and closing in on their targets. Solskjaer, speaking about how proud he was to see his players achieve what they set out to do, said:

“I’m delighted. We’ve achieved a Champions League spot, we’ve come from way, way behind teams and gone past them.

“We’ve shown that we’ve got the consistency, the right mentality. We’re building a group and a performance culture here that we can be proud of.”

Written by John Walker

Manchester United’s New Captain Harry Maguire is Earning the Armband

Harry Maguire is a staunch defender with a commanding presence; he is a world-class addition to any backline. After Ashley Young was sold on to Inter Milan, Maguire was chosen to be the new captain for Manchester United. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided that the Englishman, affectionately nicknamed “Slabhead” for his larger than normal skull and his prowess with headers on set pieces, ought to be the incumbent captain at United.

It appears to have been a wise decision thus far. He has made an emphatic statement to the club and its’ fans with his recent play. Since sliding on the captain’s armband against Liverpool, Maguire has become more confident with his feet, buried a couple of picturesque goals, and emerged as a confident leader with physicality and swagger. 

Following his laser header that cannoned into the far post during a crucial away victory at Stamford Bridge, he gallivanted toward the touchline in front of the United fans and leapt into the air before striking a heroic pose. The team leapt on his shoulders and swarmed his large figure as the fans went wild, just mere feet away.

It was an important moment: it signified a prominent shift in leadership. His face oozed with confidence and the header was glanced menacingly into the far post with extreme accuracy. The strong and sure-footed defender is grabbing United by the scruff of the neck and setting an example: as true leaders do. 

United’ s backline, which has arguably been woeful for quite a while, has seen massive upgrades with the additions of Maguire and his teammate at right back: Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Maguire has 45 interceptions109 clearances119 aerial duels won109 accurate long balls, and has bagged two goals and an assist along the way in his short stint with the club thus far (26 games).

Studying his contributions from game to game, Maguire is a sure footed and physical centre-back with the ability to stab at and dislodge the ball from defenders with both feet effectively. He has high football IQ as well, often positioning himself exceptionally to either meet attackers at their point of progress or step in front of them as passes arrive.

He is a serviceable dribbler, often stroking the ball down field with his head up, using mainly his right foot, before delivering a crisp pass. On top of all of that, he is lauded as an exceptional aerial defender: evident in his 119 aerial battles won, compared to his 49 aerial battles lost.          

Harry Maguire is well on his way to not only deserving the captaincy but maintaining it for some time. While he looked comfortable playing alongside United centre-back Victor Lindelöf for the majority of his time with United thus far, he looked even more comfortable alongside Eric Bailly, the spry and dynamic centre-back from the Ivory Coast – a former signing of Jose Mourinho.

As a team, there appears to be more composure with Maguire leading the back line. This confidence trickles down, supplementing the expectations of the coaching staff, surely, and it’s widely felt amongst the United fanbase. A captain should inspire confidence and change, while shouldering the club’s primary leadership role with tenacity. Harry Maguire has done exactly that. 

Written by Christopher Michael Eithun

Does Harry Maguire deserve the Manchester United captaincy?

Manchester United’s £80 million centre-back, Harry Maguire, has been the subject of some criticism of late. With some of the clubs supporters believing his performances on the pitch have been below par, and some backing his output, he’s been wearing the captain’s armband this season in the absence of Ashley Young. But, does he deserve it?

It has been rumoured that Young, amongst others, will be leaving United in the summer transfer window. Young has been strongly linked with a move to Italian giants Inter Milan, and as the official club captain, he’ll be passing on the honour to another member of the squad. It was recently speculated that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has chosen four possible candidates to take over the responsibility – Marcus Rashford, Juan Mata, David De Gea and Harry Maguire. 

All four have led the club out in previous matches, the most inexperienced being Marcus Rashford with just the one game. But given Maguire’s short tenure at the club, his fast track to the captaincy has raised some eyebrows amongst supporters. Since coming into the side, Maguire’s impact was felt almost immediately.

Although, defensive stability was aided with the signing of Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Maguire was brought in for his aerial prowess and dominance over opposing strikers, and he’s delivered in that aspect. The Englishman has made 30 appearances so far this season for the Red Devils in all competitions and is still yet to score a goal. He’s completed 86% of his passes and assisted one goal.

Although Solskjaer’s side have conceded 25 goals in the Premier League this season, Maguire’s individual stats boast some of the best numbers in the league. He’s made 24 tackles in the league, won 101 aerial duels, only three fewer than Virgil van Dijk and has made more headed clearances than the big Dutchman, 57 to van Dijk’s 50. He also has an 86.49% pass completion, completing 1,414 passes overall. 

Based on these stats, Maguire is up there with players who are being lauded as the world’s best in terms of defenders. His influence on the back four in general has been noticeable. He brings a calming influence to a defensive unit that has been rash and erratic in recent years. He’s provided Victor Lindelof with a stable partner and has instilled more confidence in the players around him. 

I think it would be a bit rushed to give Maguire the armband, as I think you must deserve the captaincy. He boasts some good stats, but consistently performing at the highest level is the least anybody should expect from their club captain and that’s not something Maguire has given us yet. 

David De Gea would be my choice of captain. He’s been at the club for almost a decade and has arguably been United’s most important player for the majority of his career at United. He’s been the club’s only ‘world class’ player since he was signed and has done more for the club than anybody else, in terms of his performances on the pitch.

Who would you choose to be Manchester United’s next club captain?

Written by Anton Brooks

Confidence is the key for Manchester United to overturn poor August form and kick on in September, says Harry Maguire

Manchester United defender Harry Maguire has suggested that the squad needs to have more confidence on the ball to take control in matches. United played four times in August, beating Chelsea 4-0, drawing 1-1 with Wolverhampton Wanderers, losing 2-1 to Crystal Palace and drawing 1-1 with Southampton, the most recent match.

At St Mary’s on Saturday, United had 58.6% possession, having 21 shots on goal, eight of those on target, nine off target and four being blocked. Maguire, an England international, was once again partnered with Victor Lindelof if the heart of defence, which has been a good partnership so far this season, considering last seasons poor defensive record.

United took the lead against Southampton in the tenth minute of the match through a Daniel James strike on goal which caused a celebration with ‘James, James will tear you apart again’ roaring in sections of the United faithful in the crowd. It seemed like it could be one of those matches that United scored goals for fun. However, it was much different.

Maguire thought that United were a bit unlucky not to leave the South Coast with three points in the bag. With the number of chances that United had on goal, they should have been doing a lot more with the ball. Having eight shots on target should heed more goals that just one. Maguire, speaking to the official Manchester United website, said:

“It’s another game we deserved to win. We created the majority of the chances and we’ve dropped two points.

“We gave the ball away far too much. We need to improve on that and show arrogance on the ball and be confident on the ball.

“We’re Manchester United and we want to control games.”

The £80 million signing from Leicester City has come on leaps and bounds since his move to United, in a bid to secure the defence and ensure they move on from conceding 54 goals in the Premier League alone this season. Four matches in, with 34 remaining, United have conceded four goals, which will need to be curtailed.

The Saints had Kevin Danso sent off with around 17 minutes of the match remaining, which left United in control of the match, putting themselves forward in the search of a winning goal, which never came. Maguire feels that the energy and impetus that United showed is something that needs to be shown a lot more in the upcoming matches. He said:

“That’s how we should play all the way through the game.

“Seeing the confidence of our players when they went down to 10 men, it seemed like everyone wanted the ball and wanted to create a chance.

“We did enough in those 15 minutes to score a goal, we just needed to be more clinical.”

There is now a short break form top level club football with the first international break of the season. Maguire, along with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford will all be in action for England, as they face Bulgaria and Kosovo in the Euro 2020 qualifiers over the next eight days or so.

In September, United will be tested and they will need to overcome their inability to win matches, which has been shown in the last three in which United has drawn twice and lost once. Leicester City will be the first challenge followed by FC Astana in the UEFA Europa League, both matches at Old Trafford. Then, United face West Ham United away, Rochdale at home in the Carabao Cup, followed by Arsenal at home.

Solskjaer will have some time to come up with a plan to take on their rivals in the league this season. Having five points after four matches is not the best start but it could have been worse. There is something to aim for even more now and going on a winning run in September is something that will awaken the beast that is Manchester United.

Looking at Manchester United’s defensive depth for the 2019/20 season

Manchester United did well during the summer transfer window, adding Aaron Wan-Bissaka, who signed from Crystal Palace and Harry Maguire, who arrived from Leicester City. It was a summer that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needed to pay attention to the defence, which allowed more than 50 goals to be conceded in the Premier League along last season.

Solskjaer spent £125 million; £80 million for Maguire and an initial £45 million for Wan-Bissaka giving some much-needed defensive ability ahead of the 2019/20 season in which United would be tasked with chasing the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, to regain a place in the top four of the league.

United finished sixth last season, five points adrift of a place in the top four, which could have been much different if United managed to beat both Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City at the end of the season. However, hindsight is only fantastic when you look back as if you change two factors, other factors may have had to change also.

Goalkeeper depth; Solskjaer does not need to worry in this area.

Solskjaer has three great first-team options in goal this season; David De Gea, Sergio Romero and Lee Grant. That will be the order of importance in the squad. The club also had the likes of Dean Henderson, Joel Pereira and Kieran O’Hara, who have all been loaned out to Sheffield United, Hearts of Midlothian and Burton Albion respectively.

De Gea will be the go-to guy to start the majority of matches, namely in the Premier League. As for the Carabao Cup, the UEFA Europa League and the Emirates FA Cup, it could well be Romero who features, as he did in the cup competitions last season, other than the UEFA Champions League, of course. Grant could be a shoo-in for matches in these competitions too.

It was hoped that Henderson could have been afforded time in the Premier League this season but with De Gea’s contract being extended by the extra year agreed to in 2015, it was unlikely that he would be the first option in the goalkeeping ranks, however, he will get that Premier League experience he craved for, which might do him some good.

Fullback depth; Solskjaer’s options are much improved this season.

Last season, United’s defence left a lot to be desired. First of all, in the fullback position, Jose Mourinho, who started the season as manager, then Solskjaer had Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young, Matteo Darmian, Luke Shaw, and Diogo Dalot to choose from in both the left-back and right-back positions. Not a lot of pace, or youth for that matter.

Valencia was on the sidelines for much of the season, leaving the other four to contend for places in the squad. Young was often criticised, as way Shaw. Dalot was too inexperienced, but gave his all and Darmian seldom played. This season though, after the departure of Valencia, Wan-Bissaka arrived and has improved the position greatly.

Both Wan-Bissaka and Shaw will face competition from Young and Dalot, who can both play on the left or the right. Darmian may still play a part despite his future up in the air, although his current contract will expire at the end of the season. The fullback role is looking good for the current season with youth coming through the ranks to add more competition.

Central defensive depth; the strongest defence in six years?

Solskjaer has Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Harry Maguire, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Axel Tuanzebe in his ranks for the current season. There was the rumour of Rojo likely to depart before the closure of the European transfer window at the start of September, but it is just rumour right now. With seven players, there is some depth in this area.

Bailly is injured until the Christmas period, meaning Solskjaer has six players contesting two positions in the squad. Lindelof and Maguire secured the central defensive area in the 4-0 victory over Chelsea at Old Trafford last weekend and will be expected to resume their positions against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Monday evening.

In case of injury to either Lindelof or Maguire, or the need for rotation, Tuanzebe will be a great option for Solskjaer as he did well during pre-season and learned some valuable things on loan with Aston Villa last season. The likes of Jones and Smalling could also be considered. Rojo not so much, based on pre-season appearances.

The depth of this squad is pretty good, despite the moaning for central midfield signings during the summer transfer window. Solskjaer will have had targets and if it was not possible to sign them, panic buying was just going to create more problems in the future with many players on high wages and unable to be moved on; Alexis Sanchez for instance.

United have many options in different areas; a minimum of three players, counting those already in the first team this season, which are players who have already made their debuts for the club in the recent years. In some positions, United has four sometimes five options, based on my opinion on where they would be able to play in the 4-2-3-1 formation.

This is the formation which Solskjaer has used more often than not, and a formation which will get the best out of the attacking players, using their hunger, determination and more importantly, their pace to launch attacking and counter-attacking plays during matches. Solskjaer’s identity seems to be young, courage and success.

Above, you can see the 4-2-3-1 formation, keeping an eye on the defence where there is a minimum of three players for each position, listed in order of importance to the squad. At fullback, both Wan-Bissaka and Shaw seem to be safe, although the emergence of Dalot could change that, more for Shaw, if he does not improve as he should have.

In the centre of defence, Lindelof and Maguire are certain to start more matches together, fitness and injury aside, but in that instance, there is some depth which could help get United through a difficult time. Tuanzebe, at least for me, is trusted more than the likes of Jones and Smalling; Bailly is at the bottom because of injury at the present time.

If the Ivorian improves his game, he could add more competition for either centre-back, which in turn will inspire players to perform to the best of their ability in order to keep their place. Competition is the best thing to bring the best out of players. This defence could achieve a lot; first of all to ensure they concede fewer than 54 goals this season.

copyright: JW