The unspectacular Harry Maguire vindicates Gareth Southgate’s faith – for now

Published by
Peter Kavinsky

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Harry Maguire’s curse continues. England’s most beleaguered defender has started four games for club and country this season. They lost them all. Compared to defeats against Brighton, Brentford and Real Sociedad, to be beaten by Italy was almost respectable. Kyle Walker may have been responsible for Giacomo Raspadori’s magnificent goal, but Maguire was not. As he hasn’t tasted victory in the last nine games he has started for Manchester United and England since Norwich were unconvincingly defeated in April, it looked to be one of his best results. .

Maybe Maguire is now at the stage where he’s grateful for small mercies. While Jude Bellingham, by far England’s brightest performer, could work his way into the World Cup starting XI, at least Maguire hasn’t managed to pull it off. Since nothing went dramatically wrong, he and Southgate may have found some solace amid the boredom.

England are relegated to the Nations League, but maybe Maguire won’t be demoted. Unlike Erik ten Hag, Southgate doesn’t have the luxury of replacing him with a World Cup winner and Champions League serial winner like Raphael Varane.

Given the backdrop – two games before a World Cup, in the worst run of Southgate’s reign, with Maguire dropped by United – selection was as important as his actual performance. It was a statement of faith, albeit unsurprising. A willingness to stake his reputation on Maguire has shown that Southgate can be married to past semi-final stalwarts, normally properly too. Others have justified it and, until Maguire’s arrival, Bobby Moore was the only centre-back to make the semi-finals of two major tournaments for England.

Yet if the danger is that loyalty will turn against him on the world stage, Southgate is unwilling to let go of a favorite part of his past. England’s period drama is Slabhead Revisited and the times they want to go back are the summers of 2018 and 2021.

But each was part of a rise from the depths of League One. Now United’s season-long car crash has left Maguire scarred, a tentative figure who may look like a man who thinks crashes are going to happen, and for him. After United’s worst season in three decades comes a hideous Nations League campaign for England.

It was understandable that Maguire got off to a shaky start at Milan. Raspadori, admittedly offside, escapes his attentions to shoot: Gianluca Scamacca climbs above him to head for goal. Nick Pope saved twice. A powerful and timely challenge on Nicolo Barella was a sign of former authority, but Maguire was always happier with the ball in front of him. England’s deeper defensive line should mean he has to turn and chase less than at Old Trafford. There was a reprieve when Barella passed him and shot wide; the Inter Milan midfielder was offside, as Maguire’s raised arm indicated, but he didn’t like a run.

Maguire had a shaky start at Milan but improved

(Reuters)

There is some clumsiness from Maguire in the corner, as evidenced by a foul on Giovanni di Lorenzo. San Siro was the home ground of Franco Baresi and Maguire will never be as stylish as the AC Milan captain. Baresi anchored perhaps the greatest full-back of them all and, when Southgate removed Walker and went to a quartet at the back in their search for an equaliser, England looked tense. Maguire thrived in international football amid a policy of security in numbers.

There were also glimpses of the qualities Southgate likes. Maguire completed 93% of his passes. He had England’s only attempt on target in the opening 75 minutes, albeit a tame header. It was nevertheless a reminder that he was the best centre-back in his country. While their drought, barring a Harry Kane penalty, has reached 450 minutes, it’s worth remembering that the defenders’ prowess from set pieces has brought goals into tournament football.

They may depend on a similar formula. Even the most notable inclusion came from their history. The recalled Eric Dier thrived in the middle of Antonio Conte’s back three and had a fine season on the right for Mauricio Pochettino. He could move John Stones but is less of a threat to Maguire’s place on the left. The only real alternatives appear to be Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori, with six caps between them and little chance of proving their case.

MAguire looked more comfortable with the ball in front of him

(Getty Images)

Southgate are tied to Maguire, although others have lost their starter status. Now England’s New Player of the Year, Bukayo Saka has secured Theo Walcott’s former role for Arsenal and Ashley Cole’s former role for England. He is the answer to all questions, but his redeployment has reduced his attacking threat and was a sign that the left-back has become a weak position. Southgate have four right-backs but no compelling choice on the other flank. Manchester United and Chelsea each signed for the role this summer, supplanting Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell.

Admittedly, United’s struggles have posed problems for England. The Shaw-Maguire axis suited Solskjaer and Southgate but broke down last season.

Bringing in Saka threatened to further expose Maguire without a natural left-back outside of him. This adds to the responsibility on his significant shoulders. In the past, he relished that. Monday’s encounter with Germany is a rematch of Euro 2020, a clash at Wembley when Maguire was man of the match. Such occasions have earned him the trust of Southgate, but if he retains that, the heady optimism of 14 months ago seems a long way off.

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Peter Kavinsky

Peter Kavinsky is the Executive Editor at cablefreetv.org

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