Harry Maguire is at the beginning of the biggest week of his career. The Manchester United captain has two games for England, against Italy and Germany in the UEFA Nations League, over the next seven days that will shape his season and show whether he can emerge from a nightmare 12 months for club and country.
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At 29, the world’s most expensive defender — Maguire eclipsed Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk when completing an £80 million move from Leicester City to United in 2019 — has reached a crossroads in his career. There has been precious little good news at United in recent months, with injury and a loss of form costing Maguire his first-team place, but despite his fall from grace at Old Trafford, England manager Gareth Southgate has kept faith with one of his most reliable performers.
Let’s not forget that just over a year ago, Maguire earned a place in UEFA’s Team of Euro 2020 after an outstanding tournament in which England reached the final and came within a penalty shootout of winning their first major competition since the 1966 World Cup.
The former Sheffield United and Hull City centre-back was also a key figure in the run to the semifinals of the 2018 World Cup, and although he was booed by a small section of the England supporters during the Wembley friendly against Ivory Coast in March — Southgate condemned the fans’ reaction as an “absolute joke” — Maguire’s international career has been a largely positive one.
But with the World Cup in Qatar now just two months away, Maguire is relying on Southgate’s track record of sticking with players who have served him well to keep him in the England team. If Southgate’s selection was based on form, Maguire would know that his days as an England regular are numbered.
The alarming state of his United career was perfectly illustrated by his emergence from the substitutes’ bench in the 90th minute of last Thursday’s Europa League win against FC Sheriff in Moldova. Having been partly blamed for the defensive chaos which led to defeats against Brighton and Brentford in the opening two games of this season, Maguire now can’t even persuade manager Erik ten Hag to trust him in a Europa League game against the champions of Moldova.
There is no question that Maguire’s future for club and country is now shrouded in uncertainty, and losing his England place will only make it tougher for him to get back to where he needs to be, but he is in the middle a remarkable downward spiral.
Until the 79th minute of United’s Premier League win at Aston Villa in May 2021, little had gone wrong for Maguire. He had made his 72nd consecutive Premier League start for United in that game and had played every minute of the previous 71 fixtures since his arrival from Leicester.
During the previous season, Maguire was an ever-present for United and England, amassing 5,490 unbroken minutes over 61 games that made him the busiest player in world football during that 2019-20 season. In doing so, he became the first United player since Gary Pallister in 1994-95 to play every single Premier League minute in a season.
An ankle ligament injury suffered at Aston Villa forced him to miss the remainder of United’s season in May 2021. He missed the Europa League final defeat against Villarreal in Gdansk, but returned to play at Euro 2020 after sitting out the first two games against Croatia and Scotland.
Yet although he emerged with his reputation enhanced after Euro 2020, the positivity quickly evaporated back at United. Maguire suffered injuries, was sent off at Chelsea, played in the humiliating defeats against Liverpool, Manchester City and Watford and saw defensive partners change regularly due to teammates suffering injury or loss of form.
Maguire became a lightning rod for fans’ frustrations, with the captain struggling to justify the armband or his position in the team, and the situation has deteriorated to the point where he is now regarded by many as a central factor in United’s defensive problems, which have only halted since Ten Hag dropped Maguire after the 4-0 rout at Brentford.
Has Ten Hag identified the problem and dealt with it by dropping Maguire, favouring a defensive partnership of Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez, or is Maguire simply a victim of circumstance?
“Harry needs pace around him, but he hasn’t had that,” a source close to Maguire told ESPN. “If you put [Man City’s] Ruben Dias in the United defence and Harry in the City back-four, Dias would struggle and Harry would thrive. Harry hasn’t had a good 12 months, but he hasn’t been helped by those around him — coaches or players — so it’s inevitable that his confidence and form have suffered.”
Sources have said that Maguire’s frustrations with goalkeeper David de Gea’s communication and reluctance to defend further away from his goal-line were also a factor in the overall malaise in defence last season. That issue has been improved by Argentina defender Martinez’s arrival from Ajax and his ability to communicate with, and instruct, De Gea in Spanish.
But for all of the mitigating circumstances surrounding Maguire’s loss of form, United are now making impressive strides under Ten Hag, with defensive solidity coinciding with Maguire’s omission from the team.
Since losing his place, Maguire has registered just 10 minutes in four Premier League games — a brief outing in the 3-1 win against Arsenal when he was booked for a foul within a minute of entering the game. His only 90 minutes since Brentford came in the Europa League defeat against Real Sociedad.
Maguire needs games and time on the pitch to rediscover his form and confidence, so the international break is crucial for him.
But can Southgate take the risk of playing an out-of-form centre-half against such elite opposition as Italy and Germany? And if Maguire plays, can he possibly be ready?
The harsh reality for Maguire, though, is that his opportunities to play before the World Cup are going to be limited, so if he doesn’t appear for England this week, his prospects of starting in Qatar will quickly become as bleak as they are at Old Trafford.