EVEN Gareth Southgate is telling Harry Maguire to clear off. Not in so many words, of course. The English manager is a diplomat first and a 'nearly man' on the international stage second, but even he is suggesting that his defender’s days at Manchester United are done.
It feels like a tipping point for the beleaguered centre-back.
Whatever else was happening in Maguire’s inconstant career, he could usually call upon Southgate to champion his cause, like an overeager parent supporting a tuneless kid at an X-Factor audition. Maguire didn’t need the X-Factor as long as he had Southgate.
But his last ally is slowly backing away and withdrawing his support, calling his defender’s current situation “concerning”. Southgate has a point. It’s hard to take a fifth-choice centre-back from United and make him England’s first-choice centre-back with a straight face.
The credibility of both men is at stake.
At the very least, Southgate’s words of concern leave no room for misinterpretation. As the end of the season approaches, Maguire must make a case to stay at Old Trafford or seek gainful employment elsewhere. It’s straightforward and literal, a bit like Maguire in the penalty box.
But he’s not alone in sipping isotonic drinks at the last chance saloon. There’s a weary travellers XI, plus substitutes, all potentially looking for new places to stay. From defence to attack, Maguire, Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Brandon Williams, Fred, Scott McTominay, Donny van de Beek, Anthony Martial and Anthony Elanga are not likely to be regular starters again under Erik ten Hag. Axel Tuanzebe, Eric Bailly and Alex Telles are still out on loan and Phil Jones is still lost in the quantum realm.
In truth, it was recently announced to the world that Jones was leaving United. The world was surprised to learn that Jones was still at United.
Most of the others have a final English Premier League game against Fulham, an FA Cup final against Manchester City and a handful of training sessions to convince ten Hag that they are worth more than a financial contribution towards the purchase of Harry Kane.
Ironically, and sadly, Maguire is the most high-profile in the unwanted gang and the least likely to stay. A likeable, dependable character for club and country for so long, the 30-year-old lost his metronomic consistency shortly after his arrest and assault charge in Greece in August 2020.
Perhaps it was a genuine coincidence — and there’s nothing more patronising and exhausting than a football writer playing pseudo-psychologist – but the endearing everyman of England’s World Cup 2018 campaign was replaced with an occasional, error-prone liability, whenever he pulled on United’s colours.
No room left for underwhelming players
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Erik ten Hag’s attempts to play a faster, pressing game, building possession from the back, hardly helped Maguire’s cause. He looked like a bull to Lisandro Martínez’s ballerina.
Martínez’s diminutive, low centre-of gravity allowed him to adapt and move quickly whenever an attacking move broke down. Maguire often resembled a tanker trying to turn in the Singapore Straits. It was unfair, perhaps, that he was being asked to play a game that he hadn’t signed up for. But it was an uncomfortable reality nonetheless.
Martínez and Raphaël Varane helped David de Gea win the Golden Glove award for clean sheets with games to spare, conceding fewer goals than last season. It's not surprising. Martinez swaggers through a penalty box like the little guy picking a fight in a crowded bar, determined to prove that size doesn’t matter. He’s right. And Jamie Carragher was wrong. The pundit had initially assumed that United had bought a tiny dancer from Ajax, when they’d actually picked up Begbie from Trainspotting.
And there’s no room left at the inn for a lovable lug like Maguire.
Without him, the Red Devils have solidified. This season, they have conceded fewer shots per game (12.7) than last (13.4), but the block starts in midfield, where Casemiro continues to behave as if he’s leading the Spartan army against superior numbers. His tally of 3.8 tackles per 90 minutes is the second best in the EPL (Fulham’s João Palhinha leads with 4.3.)
If Casemiro represents the ripped Spartans in 300, then Fred and Scott McTominay belong in 300: Rise of an Empire, the inferior sequel. It’s decent, but the names, personalities and physiques are just a little smaller and less intimidating. Fred and McTominay are handy stand-ins, but only Casemiro is box office.
While van de Beek has probably accepted that he needs more than a shared passport with his manager to convince ten Hag to persevere with the failed experiment. Sir Alex Ferguson always referred to that rare, often elusive quality that defined a Manchester United player. Van de Beek struggled to find the qualities that defined an English Premier League player.
Martial, Dalot and Wan-Bissaka had more chances than most, but their inability to maintain form and/or fitness has rarely satisfied their exacting manager. Since their League Cup triumph, United’s mercurial performances have irritated ten Hag, certainly, but they also increased his bargaining power.
The Dutchman has arguably overachieved with an underwhelming squad, relying on a spine of David de Gea, Varane and Martinez, Casemiro and Marcus Rashford to carry the load. United’s momentum was often lost when injuries or suspensions affected that core group. They are not enough to mount a sustained challenge next season.
United are no longer simply dealing with noisy neighbours or seeking to knock the Merseyside mob off their perch, but taking on the unlimited state funds of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Even Casemiro needs support. Ten Hag needs cash. And the Glazers need a return of sorts on most of their investments. Old Trafford is going to host a fire sale to rival a closing department store in Orchard Road.
The unwanted Red Devils have a couple of games left to earn a reprieve. To be honest, it all feels a little too late. If Southgate couldn’t put in a good word for Maguire, then the rest have got no chance.
Even Casemiro needs support. Ten Hag needs cash. And the Glazers need a return of sorts on most of their investments. Old Trafford is going to host a fire sale to rival a closing department store in Orchard Road.
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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