Man Utd need Harry Maguire to help fix their broken defence and save Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's tenure

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Manchester United's Harry Maguire reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC in Manchester, Britain, 24 October 2021. - PETER POWELL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Manchester United's Harry Maguire reacts during the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester United and Liverpool FC in Manchester, Britain, 24 October 2021. - PETER POWELL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

When Harry Maguire suffered a calf injury in Manchester United’s defeat to Aston Villa at the end of September it was expected he would be out of action for some time. Instead, after only one training session, he returned to face Leicester City just three weeks later and was badly at fault and set the tone in the chastening defeat by gifting his former club their opening goal. Maguire knows he was to blame.

United conceded four goals in that game, two against Atalanta and five against Liverpool. The centre-half has played in all three and has looked short of full fitness but, in truth, that is what he is.

In fact if Raphael Varane had not also been injured, damaging his groin in France’s Europa League win over Belgium on October 7, then it is unlikely that Maguire would have even returned to action by now.

This is not to blame the 28-year-old who probably feels, as United captain, a duty to rush back and try and help out. Maguire is also a consummate ‘club man’ who wants to put the needs of the team and what his manager wants first. He is not a selfish player and at the height of this current crisis his motivation is not to look after himself first, as it is with some players, or brief against his team-mates as others have done. He is the type who wants to keep everything ‘in-house’ is desperate to put it right on the pitch starting with Saturday’s fixture away to Tottenham Hotspur.

Maguire has not reacted, for example, to claims that awarding him the captaincy soon after he signed from Leicester, when he became the world’s most expensive defender, was openly questioned by another senior player. However, it is understood that he is taking up the matter internally and not least because it does not help squad harmony and hints at factions. Maguire will make that point to his team-mates.

Nevertheless he is understood to still be short of fitness and does not appear to be moving freely and the injury looks more troublesome than the ankle problem that ruled him out of the end of last season and delayed his involved in the European Championships when England were able to ease him back.

United have not had that luxury or, rather, manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has deemed that such is Maguire’s importance that he needed to rush him back. It is certainly not a show of faith in Eric Bailly or indeed Victor Lindelof who has played in Varane’s absence. Solskjaer appears reluctant to use that pair together.

Some players see Maguire’s early return as another example, though, of Solskjaer’s indulgence of his favourites. It is clear who he trusts and who he does not - even if it is not working at present. For example the full-backs, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Luke Shaw, are immoveable even though neither is having an impressive campaign.

For Shaw there is some mitigation given his exertions at the Euros and given he was one of United’s best performers last season but Wan-Bissaka looks worryingly short of the £50 million right-back United believed they were buying. The situation is compounded because there is an obvious lack of belief in Diogo Dalot as Wan-Bissaka’s under-study, even though United refused to sell the Portuguese international in the summer, and Alex Telles as Shaw’s deputy. All were also expensive recruits.

Defensively United are struggling and the statistics are just as damning. Maguire has played 696 minutes in the Premier League this season and has made three big errors, more than any other player. United are the worst team in the league in terms of errors leading to shots. They have conceded 15 goals, worse than 15 other teams and they ranked 10th in shots faced and 14th on shots on target against.

United have lost nine of their last 20 games across the end of last season and beginning of this one and kept just one clean sheet in 21 matches and none since the fortunate win away to Wolverhampton Wanderers on August 7. During the same number of games Manchester City and Chelsea have kept nine clean sheets and Liverpool 11. At the same United are not just the 16th best team at pressing but the 19th when it comes to actually sustaining that press over a number of seconds.

And that, of course, is part of the problem. It is not just the back-four who are at fault – and remember that goalkeeper David De Gea has been in outstanding form – but the defensive work of the team as a whole that needs to be picked apart.

Much attention has focussed on the failings of the central midfield pairing of Scott McTominay and, in particular Fred (another £50million plus signing it should be added) and while they are both limited the blame needs to be shared given the United formation often looks like a 4-2-4 with Bruno Fernandes pushing far forward and often to the left. McTominay and Fred are left exposed and, as a consequence, so is the defence especially as Maguire is less sure about stepping out with the ball because of what is happening in front of him and there is no cohesion about United’s play. Players press in isolation. There is not, as with the best, well-coached teams a ‘trigger’ that means they hunt in packs to close down the opposition.

It is complicated further because with Cristiano Ronaldo as the main centre-forward United cannot sit deep and soak up pressure, as they did last season when playing the likes of Liverpool, before attempting to counter on the break. None of that has helped the defence and, in particular, a half-fit Harry Maguire.

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