Unspectacular Harry Maguire justifies Gareth Southgate’s faith - for now

England’s most beleaguered defender continued his streak of losing every game he’s started this season but was solid enough in England’s defeat to Italy

The curse of Harry Maguire goes on. England’s most beleaguered defender has started four games for club and country this season. They have lost them all. Compared to defeats to Brighton, Brentford and Real Sociedad, being beaten by Italy felt almost respectable. Kyle Walker may have been at fault for Giacomo Raspadori’s wonderful goal, but Maguire was not. As he has not tasted victory in the last nine matches he has begun for Manchester United and England since Norwich were unconvincingly overcome in April, this seemed one of his better results.

Perhaps Maguire is at the stage now where he is grateful for small mercies. As Jude Bellingham, by far England’s brightest performer, may be forcing his way into the starting 11 for the World Cup, at least Maguire did not play his way out of it. As nothing went spectacularly wrong, he and Southgate may have found some solace amid the tedium.

England are relegated in the Nations League, but perhaps Maguire will not be demoted. Unlike Erik ten Hag, Southgate does not have the luxury of replacing him with a World Cup winner and serial Champions League 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 significant as his actual performance. It was a statement of faith, albeit an unsurprising one. A willingness to stake his reputation on Maguire showed Southgate can be wedded to the stalwarts of semi-finals past, normally correctly, too. Others have vindicated him and, until Maguire came along, Bobby Moore was the only centre-back to play in the semi-finals of two major tournaments for England.

Yet if the danger is that loyalty backfires on the global stage, Southgate is unwilling to jettison a favourite part of his past. England’s period drama is Slabhead Revisited and the times they want to rewind to are the summers of 2018 and 2021.

But each was part of an ascent from the depths of League One. Now United’s car crash of a season has left Maguire scarred, a tentative figure who can carry the air of a man who thinks accidents will happen, and to him. After United’s worst season for three decades has come a hideous Nations League campaign for England.

It was understandable Maguire made a shaky start in Milan. An admittedly offside Raspadori escaped his attentions to shoot: Gianluca Scamacca climbed above him to head at goal. Nick Pope saved on both occasions. A forceful, well-timed challenge on Nicolo Barella was a sign of the old authority, but Maguire has always been 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 surged past him and shot wide; the Inter Milan midfielder was offside, as Maguire’s raised arm indicated, but he did not relish a race.

Maguire had a shaky start in Milan but improved

There is a certain clumsiness to Maguire on the turn, as a foul on Giovanni di Lorenzo demonstrated. San Siro was Franco Baresi’s home ground and Maguire will never be as stylish as the AC Milan captain. Baresi anchored perhaps the greatest back four of all and, when Southgate took off Walker and went to a quartet at the back in his search for an equaliser, England looked stretched. Maguire has flourished in international football amid a policy of safety in numbers.

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

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

MAguire looked more comfortable with the ball in front of him

Southgate is committed to Maguire, even as others have lost their status as starters. Now England’s newly anointed player of the year, Bukayo Saka has got Theo Walcott’s old position for Arsenal and Ashley Cole’s former role for England. He is the answer to all questions, but his redeployment reduced his attacking threat and was a sign that left-back has become a position of weakness. Southgate has four right-backs but no compelling choices on the other flank. Manchester United and Chelsea each signed in the position in the summer, supplanting Luke Shaw and Ben Chilwell.

Certainly United’s travails have posed England problems. The Shaw-Maguire axis suited Solskjaer and Southgate but it broke down last season.

Bringing in Saka threatened to expose Maguire more without a natural left-back outside him. It adds to the responsibility on his sizeable shoulders. In the past, he has relished that. Monday’s meeting with Germany is a rematch of Euro 2020, a Wembley clash when Maguire was the man of the match. Such occasions earned him Southgate’s trust but while he retains that, the heady optimism of 14 months ago feels very distant.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in