EPL TALK: Dropping Harry Maguire now could save Erik ten Hag's job later

Manchester United's Harry Maguire grimaces in their English Premier League match against Brentford.
Manchester United's Harry Maguire grimaces in their English Premier League match against Brentford. (PHOTO: Reuters/David Klein)

EVERY new manager needs a Joey Tribbiani. He exists only to be fired, demoted or dropped.

In the famous "Friends" episode, chef Monica Geller hired her friend Joey as a waiter simply to sack him, as a warning to the other waiters. This could happen to you.

And this should probably happen to Harry Maguire ahead of Manchester United’s latest Shakespearean effort at the Theatre of Demons. Whether Liverpool’s visit ends in farce or tragedy is unknown at this stage, but Maguire’s role feels pivotal.

The Red Devils’ skipper is Joey Tribbiani and United’s wavering coach Erik ten Hag is Monica Geller. Everyone else is the studio audience, waiting for the latest gag to land or miss.

Ten Hag must make a statement, not the weird, cryptic kind that Cristiano Ronaldo makes on social media as he desperately plots his great escape, but one that is decisive, pragmatic and logical; i.e. the qualities missing from his brief reign so far.

Pride may be holding him back, considering ten Hag spoke so glowingly of his captain in pre-season, insisting that both the armband and Maguire’s position were safe. But pride negates risk, the sort of cynical risk that turned Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp into trophy hoarders.

They had their Joey Tribbianis, too. Every manager does. Whatever else happens in Guardiola’s remaining years at Manchester City, he’ll always have Joe Hart. The OG sacrificial lamb. The one that didn’t so much get away as he was ruthlessly extracted like a grumbling appendix.

Hart was popular and experienced and generally reliable, for both club and country. But he could not play out from the back. Nor can David de Gea, but he’ll still be there at United on Monday, hoping to pull off those bandy-legged saves like a giraffe on roller blades.

Guardiola discarded an unsuitable goalkeeper to preserve his quick pressing, pinball wizardry on the pitch. Ten Hag has attempted to retain both in his first two English Premier League games, stubbornly insisting on a passing system with a defensive line-up that cannot pass.

He inexplicably allowed Dean Henderson to join Nottingham Forest on loan – where the keeper saved a penalty and earned a clean sheet against West Ham – and left himself with Hobson’s Choice. He’s stuck with de Gea, which makes Maguire the only droppable option.

Ten Hag clearly envisages his version of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, swapping passes for fun, but he’s inherited the Bert and Ernie of possession football. He’s looking for samba on Sesame Street. It won’t happen.

De Gea managed to complete just 71.3 per cent of his passes last season. Alisson reached 87.1 per cent. Ederson hit an even higher 88.1 per cent, further validating Guardiola’s decision to put head before Hart.

And Klopp is no different. Crowd favourite Philippe Coutinho soon made way for the gegenpressing masterplan. The Brazilian’s popularity was no match for the Liverpool manager’s team-building process. There’s always a Joey Tribbiani to remove.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - AFormer England international goalkeeper Joe Hart (left) sits on the benches after being dropped by manager Pep Guardiola (bottom right) at Manchester City.UGUST 28:  Joe Hart of Manchester City looks on from the bench with Aleksander Kolorov and manager Josep Guardiola during the Premier League match between Manchester City and West Ham United at Etihad Stadium on August 28, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)
Former England international goalkeeper Joe Hart (left) was dropped by manager Pep Guardiola (bottom right) at Manchester City. (PHOTO: Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

At United, Sir Alex Ferguson famously sacrificed three at once, dumping Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis from a successful squad, so the idea that ten Hag risks a loss of face in dropping his captain for a single game, albeit a fixture against Liverpool, is preposterous. He risks losing a disastrous third game in a row – and potentially his job by Christmas – if he doesn’t intervene now.

Free-fall from confident England stalwart at 2018 World Cup

In truth, ten Hag may be saving Maguire from himself. Only a sadist – or a Liverpool fan – takes comfort in such a precipitous fall from grace.

Remember those 2018 World Cup memes? The image of a nonchalant Maguire, leaning over the barrier and chatting with friends in the stand, like a construction worker chatting up the female site manager on a building site, was genuinely fun. He helped to make England likeable again.

His no-nonsense, no-frills approach to defending – a throwback to a simpler, "if in doubt, kick it out" style of play – endeared him to many. He was almost the Sunday morning park footballer who could, a refreshing mix of Tony Adams and Gary Neville, maximising every element of his finite resources.

But his lack of pace is killing his confidence now, making him look almost obsolete at times, an analog plodder in a digital world of counter-pressers, a tough gig only exacerbated by a purist in the dugout who seemed incapable of compromise in the opening games.

Brighton exposed ten Hag’s flaws. Brentford gorged on them. Every long ball behind United’s high line was a gift for Bees striker Ivan Toney.

Ten Hag wanted a left-footed centre-back, alongside a right-footed partner in front of a ball-playing goalkeeper. But Lisandro Martínez is too small, Maguire is too slow and de Gea is too inaccurate in his distribution for their manager’s system to work.

Realistically, only Maguire can make way for Raphael Varane, a centre-back more confident in possession and mobile enough to cover for his diminutive partner. Maguire needs to be spared further torment, having become the maligned poster boy for United’s inertia.

He was booed in pre-season. He was outpaced by Melbourne Victory forwards. His red card in the 4-1 loss at Watford last season led to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking. Too many mistakes, too many lost markers and mistimed challenges did nothing to alleviate the personal and professional suffering. The cheeky chappie at the World Cup has given way to a haunted soul, but ten Hag’s persistence with a failing system is only making things worse.

Dropping Maguire could be the first step to recovery, for both captain and coach, a chance to draw attention away from whatever is broken and start again.

Dropping Maguire could be the first step to recovery, for both captain and coach, a chance to draw attention away from whatever is broken and start again.

Once the United manager takes a stand with Maguire, he can then deal with Ronaldo and de Gea and Luke Shaw and Fred and Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes and you get the idea. It’s a long list. But it begins with the troubled captain.

Ten hag needs that Joey Tribbiani scene. He either sends a message to the dressing room now or he’ll receive one from the boardroom, sooner rather than later.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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