MUGA Special: Harry Maguire: Man Utd’s Emperor in New Clothes – By Elijah

One great thing about stories, fables and tales is that they are able to explain complicated phenomena quite easily. Such is the case of the pluralistic ignorance and Danish folklore, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

The story goes that two weavers come to the emperor with new linen possessing a special power. It is invisible to those who are foolish. In reality, they weaved nothing. While ‘weaving’ this clothing they are not questioned as everyone fears saying so would confirm their stupidity. They ‘dress’ the emperor in it and as he parades himself through the streets, no one says anything still. Not until a child’s shouts that he is naked, that everyone sees they had been fooled into silence.

That’s the essence of pluralistic ignorance – holding an opinion privately that you fear would make you look foolish publicly. It has been used to explain a whole manner of things from: racism in the United States during segregation; the continuation of the Soviet regime until its demise and even binge drinking amongst university students.

Harry Maguire has emerged into somewhat of an Emperor at Man Utd, with the captain’s armband he got in January. An £80 million move from Leicester City, a year after exploits at England’s Russian adventure at the World Cup, his election as such is obvious. He ticked all the boxes of the prototypical leader. With a dearth of leading figures, Man Utd took little time to captain Maguire. Then his clean figure came crashing down. Being found guilty of a multitude of charges in Greece compounded by the shocker against Palace in the first game of the season. The 6-1 vs Spurs only mounted the pressure further. A sending off for England against Denmark and it quickly looked like this nadir of Manchester United’s captain would only deepen.

Then came the header against Newcastle and with every performance since, confidence in the Yorkshire born skipper grows again. Solskjaer has intimated that his side have been looking more solid since that 6-1 thumping at Old Trafford. But the issues are there and have been on the surface since Maguire’s arrival. Paul Merson’s scathing assessment of him in August 2019 was seen as disrespectful but much like the child’s quip about the Emperor, was he just saying what we could all see?

Left Naked and Exposed?

Maguire during his disasterclass against Tottenham

“It is pace, pace, pace”, Merson quipped in his rant as he shared his worry for Maguire having moved to a bigger club, who would naturally exposed him more to 1v1 defending, recovery runs and duels against quicker opponents.

“When you play in a three at the back, you do that for one reason only – the defenders are not good enough and you do not trust them. He done well at England.” – again the former Arsenal and Aston Villa midfielder expressing his concern on Maguire’s capability of defending without much protection.

He could have ended at the beginning of his rant though as the real coup de gras came then where Merson said spending £80 million Maguire is ridiculous at the highest level”.

It was the world record for a central defender, eclipsing Virgil van Dijk’s move to Liverpool by £5m. The problem now was that the Dutchman provided a benchmark for not just for Maguire’s performance level, but his influence in increasing the performance level of all those around him. While Van Dijk was a key figure, he did not do this alone so expecting it of Maguire was an unfair expectation but that is a mere digression. The standards were set. Was he able to live up to it?

Well, in short, no. A lot of frustration on Maguire is born out of an annoying duality. He has his big limitations – the capability to not look like his running through treacle being the main one – and big strengths, one being the basis of his affectionate nickname ‘Slabhead’ – he can really head the ball. For a man of his height and size, he is surprisingly comfortable on the ball. So much so, that his ability to carry the ball out of the defence is pretty idiosyncratic when you look at defenders of his profile, this statistic elucidating how well Maguire does this.

In all the basics of defending, he does them comfortably – blocking, clearing, tackling. He has a penchant of nipping in front of attackers, something built into his game to offset against his lack of speed. In the grand scheme of things, Maguire is okay. Just okay

As much as he does have some good, and he does in fact have some good no matter how much people try to denigrate him, the big concern is that the places in which he lacks are just not conducive with a team which seeks to dominate the play and thus leave space in & around their defenders. We only need to see Berwjign’s goal against Man Utd to know what Maguire does when being faced up in 1v1 situations. A spin at the Emirates from Lacazette, a nutmeg from Aguero at Old Trafford as further evidence if there need be more. In the opening game for the Red Devils, Palace countered into space time and time again, Maguire unbeknownst on how to deal with such forays.

Usually when the Lord giveth, he taketh away and the same could be said vice versa. Being a less physically inclined player means that you often have to use your brain more to make up for it. Footballing intelligence, as it were. Daley Blind, John Terry, Sami Hyypia and Per Mertesacker are some of the defensive examples who managed to overcome their lack of athleticism with their speed and quality of thought.

Unfortunately, Maguire is not blessed in this regard. His positional sense is not brilliant at all, probably just mediocre at best. Rio Ferdinand’s clinical analysis of the Palace game highlights this point, as he talked about Maguire’s positioning for the first goal. A ball across the box is one of the more dangerous things a defence has to deal with and CBs being across the near post to deal with it before it gets central is imperative. Maguire was not.

Not a one time occurrence either. The same can be seen vs Chelsea in the FA Cup semi final, another of Maguire’s poorer performance, and the Europa League semi final vs Sevilla. Both low crosses, both that Maguire let go across him. In the end, Shaw, Lindelof and Williams all should have done better at the back post on these goals but their incompetence would not have been seen if not for Maguire’s. It’s the story of Maguire, really. The things that would make him a defender capable of playing at the level the Red Devils aspire to get back to, are where he lacks the most.

A Story told but not showed?

In spite of all the above, you would not think so if you looked at the media. To them, Maguire had a stellar season, in which his influence defensively was marked. Contextually though, this was never the case. 2 clean sheets by the mid point of the league last season, 23 goals conceded in 19 games. Compared to the previous year of 2018/19, when it was 31 goals conceded and 2 clean sheets, it was an improvement. However, alongside the acquisition of Maguire, Wan Bissaka came in for £50m. So £130m later, all that could be seen was 8 less goals conceded, which could be attributable to our tactics. United played as a more of counter attacking unit than before, thus finding it harder to break down deeper blocks. Our goals scored column lessening almost as much as the goals conceded did points to this fact.

The second half of the season however, Man Utd would only concede 13 more goals. They finished with the third best defensive record and they kept 11 clean sheets in 19 games. The praise duly followed and most of it lavished upon Maguire and his influence. The underlying stats, the likes of xG and PSxG, showed that if the goal was kept by a keeper in better form, that the defensive record would look even better. Yet, Maguire had not changed from what he was doing earlier on in the season. He was performing as he had been throughout – unremarkably average. He would have some good games – Leicester at home and Everton away the standouts – and shockers – Burnley at home and Chelsea in the FA Cup as mentioned above. All in all, it was flat.

The media did not see it like this though. Maguire was the captain, the big money addition in the defence. It was clear he was the reason. As aforementioned, United were in a mess defensively. Bailly, Rojo and Jones are not fit enough and when they are, they can drop a true disaster at the back. Lindelof suffers similar physical deficiencies as his partner but coupled with even weaker mental attributes. Maguire, just by being relatively normal, was an upgrade. But the needle has been pushed too far.

Custis’s staunch defence of him on TalkSPORT is just an example of what is going on. The true up turn in defensive form last season came when Nemanja Matic deputised alongside Fred, instead of McTominay. Maguire, and Lindelof, look more solid because Ole plays a combination of Fred, McTominay & Matic in front of the pair. No longer are they exposed by a more progressive, less disciplined midfielder in Pogba. It means less of the top level defending on their part.

The pluralistic ignorance has gone though. Everyone can see the Emperor is naked. These words from these two United legends show as much. Now, the talk has turned to a better partner for Maguire being brought into the club. An athletic one that can make up for what Maguire lacks. But that won’t make Maguire a great defender. Such is the investment into him, United have to stump up more cash. He has played on the left side for the club, he even played the outer left CB role for England. Now though, we are said to be looking for a left footed CB to push Maguire to the other side. Perhaps in the hope that playing alongside Wan Bissaka may help cover him more. Will it be possible to play a more expressive style with Maguire more or less guaranteed a starting berth? Time will tell.

Maguire did not ask to be brought for that price nor be played how he has been. It is an issue United have found themselves in before with Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku. They buy a player as a fix all for something one player cannot. The pieces around them are not suitable. The tactics don’t get the best out of them. The latter two are and were admonished in the media, respectively, so at least Maguire does not have to deal with that as much. Stories, fables and tales can explain complicated phenomena quite easily. There is nothing complicated here though. Maguire is beginning to pay the price for United paying the big price. A child doesn’t need to shout it for people to see it now.

You can read more of Elijah’s articles here:

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