They say form is temporary and class is permanent, but Harry Maguire’s poor spell is persisting long enough that many are beginning to ask whether it even is ‘form’ anymore.
The ligament damage Maguire suffered in May last season saw him miss Manchester United’s ill-fated Europa League final defeat to Villareal. He was then controversially named in England’s squad for the Euros, despite still being yet to return.
In his absence, Tyrone Mings partnered John Stones for the first two matches of England’s Euros journey on home soil, before Maguire returned for the third group game — his first appearance since pulling up on the sideline against Aston Villa well over a month before.
Maguire eased back into elite football effortlessly. He was one of England’s best performers on that first game back, as they beat the Czech Republic 1–0 at Wembley. Maguire kept that up, and by the end of the tournament had been one of the team’s outstanding performers. So much so that he was named in the UEFA team of the tournament. Only two other English centre-backs have made the Euros best XI: Bobby Moore in 1968 and Sol Campbell in 2004. Decent company.Embed from Getty Images
But despite putting his aerial dominance to good use, as well as his ability to stride forward with the ball while fending off attempts to dispossess him, Maguire’s return to Manchester United after his summer holiday brought a sudden and stark drop in his level of performance. Defeat in the final to Italy on penalties hit the England players extremely hard. Many of them have opened up about the low they felt for weeks after when speaking to the media since.
Yet Maguire is an example of a player whose performances continue to linger well below the levels he reached during that sunniest of English summers. False narratives are a killer in sport discourse today, but it’s hard to see how the chaos of United’s season is sufficient to explain such a dramatic personal decline.
One minute Maguire was battering in the greatest penalty known to anyone anywhere in the European Championship final. The next he was stumbling on the ball and leaking goals for the Red Devils — often goals for which he was directly to blame. Headed goals against the Premier League’s worst defence (Leeds United) aside, Maguire remains a shadow of the player he was last summer. We’re not talking about a shoddy August and September. We’re still speaking about this in March.
Over the last 365 days, StatsBomb state that among centre-backs in Europe’s top five leagues and European competitions, the 29-year-old is in the bottom 14 percent for most pressures on the opponent, the bottom 16 percent for blocks, and the bottom 25 percent for tackles. These are all essential parts of defending, and statistics which — if Maguire is as reflective of his own performances as he says he is when interviewed — should concern the £85m man.Embed from Getty Images
And yet for non-penalty expected goals, he’s in the top nine percent of top five leagues centre-backs. For both aerial duels won and touches in the opposition’s box, he’s in the top 12 percent. So why such dramatic and drastically different numbers? Well, there might just be an explanation for that.
He gets to show off so much of what he’s good at when he dons an England shirt. And so much of what he’s not so good at gets exposed when wearing the colours of the country’s most famous club. He has been overcommitted when leaping out from the back to try to win possession for the Red Devils this season, whereas for England similar lunges out from the backline tend to be more successful. That might well be because the level of competition England face is more often inferior to the average opposition Maguire faces for United.
Whether or not Maguire is world class could be debated this way and that, but he is certainly an elite-level centre-back. You don’t cost £85m and make UEFA teams of the tournament if you’re not. And it is just the case that Maguire is better at attacking than the average elite-level centre-back. Similarly, he is worse at defending than the average elite-level centre-back. There are two sides to this coin. His regular flurry of headed goals (particularly for England) disguises his defensive errors. But by the same token, the goals he is at fault for at the back make it harder to spot his near-unique prowess when carrying the ball forward to help his team in transition — sometimes even reaching the opposition’s box.
Maguire looked so comfortably among Europe’s best defenders at the Euros because a lot of what he had to do was aerial. He didn’t earn the nickname ‘Slabhead’ for nothing. And that which wasn’t aerial was either simple enough or was mopped up well by others because England were a functional, well-oiled machine. The final remaining percentages he found last summer can be accounted for by simply admitting that he did — like so many of the England team — just have an excellent month.Embed from Getty Images
Tactics are a lot more developed in the Premier League, because of club football’s relentless and smothering nature. In international football, tactics tend to be less developed because managers and teams spend less time together. The tactics that England face — by virtue of them almost always being favourites every time they play — are often simple, aerial and direct. Defensively, that’s Maguire’s bread and butter. In the Premier League, teams like Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Arsenal play fluid floor-based football. Maguire struggles with the pace and athleticism of this. The Twitter equivalent of that point is to call him ‘a fridge’.
All of this exposes a difference between Manchester United and England that people have known for some time. United remains a disjointed group of individuals, while England is a unit whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
And yet, returning to the question of whether Gareth Southgate should select Maguire this month, one argument stands out above all others. Ponder this: will Harry Maguire be selected for the World Cup in Qatar?
Too often people see international call-ups as rewards only, as ends in themselves. Partly they are indeed a reward for strong form. But England are not a vessel. They are a football team just like any club, with ambitions of lifting trophies and with the need to pick their best players while also finding tactical balance. When selecting players out of form, Southgate has always said that sometimes players make the cut due to what they’ve brought to his team in the past.
Will Southgate name Harry Maguire in England’s World Cup squad when he selects it in the autumn? He almost certainly will. With that in mind, it isn’t worth leaving Maguire out this month if he’s bound to come back in later down the line. Southgate would be denting the development of his team, as well as Maguire’s confidence. It would be counterproductive. Maguire should be picked.