When Gary Neville named his Premier League team of the season on Monday Night Football earlier this week, it caused a bit of stir. There were four Manchester United players in it, for starters, and while few would argue against the inclusion of either Bruno Fernandes or Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford’s place felt somewhat generous.
His fourth United player was Harry Maguire, a choice that is genuinely open to debate given the lack of outstanding centre-back candidates outside of Ruben Dias. Plenty still questioned Neville’s decision, and some accused him of bias, but the ragged defending on display at Old Trafford on Thursday night in Maguire’s absence may already have helped to change a few minds.
United were all over the place in this 4-2 defeat to Liverpool, the third time Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have lost in a week, conceding double figures. The fact they have played an almost impossible four games over that timeframe must be taken into account but fatigue does not fully explain just how defensively poor they were.
For that, just look at any one of Liverpool’s four goals.
There was yet another botched attempt to defend a corner for Diogo Jota’s equaliser. Roberto Firmino then broke free at the far post to nod home a free-kick on the cusp of half-time. A disastrous attempt to play out from the back granted Firmino his second when both sides reemerged, while Mohamed Salah’s coup de grace was delivered through a simple counter-attack.
Maguire watched all this from the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, sat in a moon-boot protecting the ankle ligament injury that has made him a doubt for the Europa League final. From there he was his usual vocal self, encouraging his team-mates and arguing their corner in every contentious refereeing decision.
That leadership and presence is an important part of what he has brought to this United side since arriving as the world’s most expensive defender, and has become all the more noticeable in the era of behind-closed-doors games, with many of his expletive-laden rants making their way on to social media.
“Of course when a player is a leader, a captain, who has the status of him, his presence is missed,” Solskjaer admitted in his post-match press conference. He wants others to take on the mantle in Maguire’s absence. “We've got good players to come in. It's a chance for everyone to take on that little bit of leadership.”
But Maguire is more than that, too. He may be one of the most well-rounded centre-halves in Europe. Not only is he an aerial presence, winning around four battles every game, but he anticipates and reads the game brilliantly. Few top-flight centre-halves have made as many interceptions as he has on a regular basis this season.
Then there is what he does on the ball, carrying it up the pitch with confidence and moving his team-mates with him. There, he looks for passes which can move United into the attacking third. Again, very few players in his position can match the six or so passes into the final third which he averages per game.
Maguire’s biggest problem is that his flaws are especially noticeable. A relative lack of pace and agility can make you stand out as a centre-half for an elite side which attempts to play a high line. He can look cumbersome on those occasions when this is exposed, but those are rare occasions because he has learned how to compensate for the weaknesses in his game.
A quicker player who does not possess his aerial ability, or his confidence to carry the ball forward, or his eye for the right pass in decisive areas of the pitch probably would not be as integral to how United play. And maybe now that we are finally seeing United play without him, we are beginning to appreciate that fact.
As Solskjaer pointed out on Thursday night, Maguire has been “more or less ever-present”, playing 6,467 league minutes out of a possible 6,660. We do not really know what a United side without Maguire looks like, though we may have to get used to it. Solskjaer sounded hopeful but sceptical about the chances of him playing against Villarreal in Gdansk.
“I'm sure that in the next two games we'll be without him,” he said. “Hopefully we can get him for the final but who knows? I don't know yet.” The crutches and moon-boot do not look particularly good from an England perspective either, less than a month away from the start of Euro 2020, though Gareth Southgate is sure to give Maguire every possible chance given his own lack of options in the centre of defence.
In a lot of ways, this injury could not have come at a worse time for United, England and Maguire himself. If there is a silver lining though, it is that his absence highlights just how good a player he is, how important he is to his club and country, and how much he is missed on the rare occasions when he is not around.