Southgate has a reputation for being fiercely loyal to players he trusts. That much is true since assuming the position in 2016. Six years, the length of his tenure as boss of the Three Lions, is a lifetime in soccer. In that time, Maguire served as Southgate’s on-pitch lieutenant, dating back to the defender’s time at Leicester City.
Maguire played a key role for Southgate in England’s recent successes. He started all but three games over the 2018 World Cup and 2020 European Championships. He featured in the Euro 2020 Team of the Tournament alongside Leonardo Bonucci.
Soon after Southgate took over the England job, he stated he would “never pick on reputation”. This has been a long-established issue for the national team. A succession of managers selected superstar players and media darlings, regardless of their form. Oftentimes, this came at the expense of developing a functional, cohesive side.
However, despite making this statement, he has shown complete trust in a number of players. For instance, Jordan Pickford, Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Mason Mount and, of course, Harry Maguire, feature regularly. The recent scrutiny around Maguire will put this trust to the test heading into a crunch tournament for England. FA Chairman Greg Dyke singled out this tournament in particular 10 years ago as one England should win.
Harry Maguire finds himself not only under immense pressure, but at a crossroads in his career. Up until this season, he was an automatic starter for both club and country. Now, it appears Erik Ten Hag lost faith in the man who remains the club captain. His place in the national team is a point of debate, and there are increasingly few in favor of Maguire.
The case to start Harry Maguire for England
Speaking last month, Southgate said of Maguire: “I know everybody says he’s important to me. He’s important to us. It’s us, not me”. He went on to say “Why do we pick him? Because he’s one of the players who gives us the best chance of winning”. It is clear that his manager feels Maguire’s performances over the past five years for his country make him worthy of selection. His use of language is interesting – ‘we’ pick him.
Maguire seems to retain the confidence of his team-mates. Speaking to the BBC, Luke Shaw said “Of course Harry is an amazing player, an amazing character. He has taken a lot of stick, probably more than I have ever seen before in football but he never hides away, he is always there. Everyone knows that he is an unbelievable player”.
Jordan Henderson has also been vocal in his unwavering support for the center back. In March 2022, England played the Ivory Coast at Wembley, and Maguire was audibly booed by his own support. Henderson took to Twitter to write ‘Harry Maguire has been a colossus for England. Without him, the progress made at the last two tournaments would not have been possible. As someone who wants to win with England I feel fortunate to share a dressing room with him. We all feel the same’. It certainly seems that Southgate’s affection for the player is mirrored by the wider squad.
Maguire at his best
When Harry Maguire was in the form he sustained throughout the 2020-21 season, his best attributes made him a vital component for the England team. In this period, his confidence was at its peak and he was a hard-tackling, ball-carrying centre back.
Statistical analysis on Maguire showed strength in aerial duels. Maguire finished second in the league in this regard. Moreover, Maguire won the majority of one-on-one duels he faced. Then, Maguire scored highly when it came to bringing the ball out from defense. He was comfortable at this point in time, under Solskjaer, defending in a middle block alongside Victor Lindelöf.
Maguire has always looked somewhat clumsy in carrying out his duties and has always lacked pace. Yet, in good form, Maguire blended good timing with high intensity and strength. This ensured he won the ball the majority of the time. However, he was aware of his limitations. Tricky forwards and those with blinding pace backed could have an upper hand. Still, Maguire backed himself to win any contest.
The issue is that this version of Maguire has not been seen in quite some time, and as a result his playing time this season has been minimal.
The case to drop Maguire
The trust Harry Maguire has earned came during a run of relatively consistent seasons, with Maguire performing confidently. Certainly, he had never let his country down over the years and had been one of the reliable performers. The issue is, for at least the last 18 months, this has no longer been the case. His atrocious form reached a nadir in the 3-3 draw against Germany in September.
At that point, Maguire lost his place at United. Yet, Southgate kept faith. He slotted Maguire into the left side of his three-man defense. Calamity ensued at the back. Maguire first gave the ball away without any pressure on hi,. Then, he conceded a penalty with a challenge that would the word ‘clumsy’ does not do justice.
Drop in confidence
Manchester United players have increased pressure to succeed and perform on the biggest stage. Over time, his confidence has continued to wane. Speaking to TalkSPORT radio in September, Maguire said he hushes out the critics.
“On my form, I don’t know what has been said, I don’t really read about it. I am not concentrating on anybody else and what people are saying”.
Of course, few are immune to seeing the ever-present deluge of memes and compilations of Maguire’s awkward defending style. Clearly, it affected the Englishman. The evidence is in performances. Frankly, he wouldn’t be human if he were able to silence the noise.
Both this season and last, he has lower scores for defensive impact; he has lower scores for ball recoveries and interceptions; and he has much lower numbers for carry and dribble volume. He has made a number of high-profile blunders. Where he was once eager to impact games and put himself into positions of risk, he is now pre-occupied with trying to avoid humiliation. At this stage, he will have very limited game time available ahead of England’s opening fixture. It would surely be unrealistic to expect him to be capable of returning to his previously high levels of performance during the tournament. His confidence is so low, and there is no quick fix to remedy a damaged mindset.
A different role for England
One thing that goes in favour of selecting Maguire is the very different style of play that England will employ at the World Cup. At Ten Hag’s United, the defence plays with a high line, attempting to press their opponents and force the play. This can leave Maguire’s lack of recovery pace exposed when faced with counter attacks.
Maguire for England would play on the left of three centre backs, with a deeper defensive line. This affords extra cover for him. Plus, it enables him to be a proactive defender. Maguire can progress the ball into midfield and to the left wing-back – likely to be club mate Luke Shaw.
There are alternative options. For instance, Joe Gomez, Tyrone Mings, Fikayo Tomori, Conor Coady and Ben White all play the same spot. It remains a gamble to throw them into a World Cup line up. None have the experience of international soccer like Harry Maguire, particularly in Southgate’s system with Engand. For this reason, and despite his own issues with form, Eric Dier may be the most likely replacement.
Southgate is a pragmatist, and values solidity and continuity. He attempts to reduce the amount of chaos and unpredictability in games and is protective of his trusted players. Consequently, he is hesitant to move away from his tried and tested formula. Therefore, he knows no other English defender can offer what Maguire at his best can bring to the table.
Recent evidence suggests it may end in disaster for player and country. Yet, it is highly likely Southgate starts Harry Maguire for England against Iran on Nov. 21. It will be fascinating to see how he fares.
PHOTO: IMAGO / PA Images
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