So Long Slabhead?

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

Life comes at you fast.

Four years ago this summer, Manchester United paid £80 million to secure the services of Harry Maguire, a record transfer fee for a defender that still stands.

Sure, it was a lot of money, but at the time, it seemed like he was worth every cent. The club desperately needed a good center half and back line leader and Maguire had long been considered one of the best in the league. Pep Guardiola had tried to get him to replace Vincent Kompany while Jose Mourinho was so upset that United didn’t sign him in 2018 that he was still complaining about it a year later.

During Maguire’s first season at United, he made that fee look like a bargain, playing every minute of every match in the league and bringing a level of authority, skill and stability not seen since the heyday of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. When he was given the captain’s armband after only a few months at the club, it seemed like a no-brainer.

This weekend, when Maguire announced that he had been stripped of the captaincy, it seemed like another no-brainer for United. Maguire has been a liability for several seasons now and had lost his place under Erik ten Hag. He’s been so bad that even politicians outside the UK are taking shots at him. A departure seems inevitable— the only question is whether it will be a permanent or loan move.

So what happened?

It’s easy to forget just how good Maguire was during his first season at United. He was deservedly Man of the Match in his regular season debut against Chelsea, putting forth such a strong and classy display that I actually sympathized with Mourinho and wondered if he had a point about not signing him in 2018. Maguire even scored a couple of bangers that year, including this poacher’s goal that sent United to the FA Cup semi final. If not for Bruno Fernandes joining the team in January and immediately making a huge impact, Maguire might have won the Sir Matt Busby Trophy that season.

That summer, he made a fateful trip to Greece and was arrested in August 2020 for assault, resisting arrest and attempted bribery. Several pundits and fans have pointed to this incident as the turning point in his United career. Being arrested in a foreign country clearly traumatized Maguire, who accused the police of hitting his legs and threatening to end his career. Worse, three years later, the case still hasn’t been fully resolved — Maguire was convicted and given a suspended prison sentence, but appealed. Currently, he’s scheduled to be re-tried in February 2024.

Since then, Maguire has been either average, poor, or downright bad. Despite his drop in form, he continued to start almost every match under Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ralf Rangnick — a move that nearly caused a player revolt under the latter. Erik ten Hag actually started Maguire in his first two Premier League matches in charge, then bolted him to the bench to go with Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez.

While Greece likely played a role in his downturn in form, a much simpler explanation is that the game has changed radically in the last several years and United have only just started to catch up.

Much like the recently departed David de Gea, Maguire was a perfectly cromulent player when he arrived at United. He was perfect for traditional tactical setups as his height and aerial skills (surely helped by his gigantic head) made him virtually unbeatable on corners and crosses in the box, while his physical strength made him almost impossible to bully in the box. He was a decent dribbler and an aggressive man-marker, making him a disruptive and destructive force from the back.

That’s why, despite playing very little this past season, Maguire is still a no-doubt-about-it starter for England and looks to remain that way for the foreseeable future. International football doesn’t lend itself well to complicated tactical schemes that take time and chemistry to learn.

Club football is another issue. In the last few years, tactical schemes involving some or all of the following have become in vogue: pressing high, keeping possession, passing through the lines, ball-playing and keeping fullbacks in advanced positions. Thanks to these and other tactical innovations brought forth by the likes of Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and (yes) Rangnick, Maguire has seemingly become obsolete.

For instance with lots of teams moving their fullbacks up the pitch, center halves like Maguire have to cover more ground— something he has trouble with since he lacks foot speed. High-pressing, high-possession teams are already vulnerable to counterattacks — if Maguire is your last defender then you might as well give the other team a goal. Assuming ten Hag is able to fully implement his style of play this season, then you have to wonder if Maguire will even make it to the bench on most match days.

But wait, there’s more! As The Mastermind Site points out, his defensive awareness is poor and his aggression can be used against him by smart teams. Maguire likes to step up from his defensive line to harass ball carriers. However, his lack of speed puts him in danger when he tries to take on a pacy, tricky attacker one-on-one. And if he doesn’t have cover from a fullback (especially if they’re further up the pitch), he’s vulnerable to an overlapping runner. Many of his mistakes in the last couple of years have come from this scenario.

Additionally, Maguire is a poor passer who often just kicks it sideways to Luke Shaw or Raphael Varane or passes it back to the keeper. During the match against Fulham in the FA Cup last year, he kept doing this and the Old Trafford crowd started groaning. Fulham even stopped pressing him because his passing was so innocuous and non-threatening.

Maybe that was to Fulham’s detriment because, for all of his dribbling skills, Maguire is not good on the ball when he’s under pressure. Whereas David de Gea was widely seen as the culprit when United got bounced from the Europa League by Sevilla, it was Maguire who gave the ball away under pressure, gifting them the lead in the second leg.

So, all of this is just a roundabout way of saying that, as with de Gea, the modern game seems to have passed Maguire by. He can still play at the international level and against certain teams in the league. But there’s a reason why, when United had an injury crisis this season at center half, ten Hag decided he’d rather play Shaw or Casemiro out of position rather than go with a healthy and motivated Maguire.

With United being linked to Monaco’s Axel Disasi, Real Madrid’s David Alaba and Bayern Munich’s Benjamin Pavard (they also just brought back Jonny Evans — Maguire’s former teammate at Leicester City — to play preseason matches, although anyone with half a brain knows that he’s being auditioned for a squad player role), it’s more than likely Maguire will fall further down the pecking order if he stays.

So maybe that’s why stripping the captaincy seems like the first step towards Maguire leaving the club. Even his classy statement seemed like a valedictory, with the club using the “everyone at Manchester United thanks Harry for his contribution as captain over the past three-and-a-half years” language they usually reserve for people when they leave the club.

While there have been reports that he’s happy at United and wants to fight for his place, a move away might suit everyone. West Ham and Tottenham Hotspur are circling, as is Chelsea, which just lost center half Wesley Fofana (another Leicester City alum) to a torn ACL. In fact, Fofana’s injury could force Chelsea to give more playing time to young, highly rated England center half Levi Colwill (assuming they don’t move for Maguire). If the UEFA U-21 European Championship standout plays well this upcoming season, then who knows? He could very well displace Maguire in the England setup — especially if Maguire spends another season on the bench at United.

It’s a shame it’s come to this, but time waits for no one.

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