It had to be Manchester United captain Harry Maguire that fouled Jamal Musiala against Germany. No one else possibly could have: the Gods of Football simply would’ve thumbs-downed it. This was a Balotelli “Why always me?” moment in full 4K. A collective sigh of a nation.
The most memed man of the moment, Harry ‘Slabhead’ Maguire, going full Del Boy, collapsing through the bar as Nick Pope watched on as his faithful Trigger. If Nations League performances are significant enough to be chalked into even the most far-off of constellations, the identity of this particular offender was written in the stars. It’s been about a year in the making – maybe more, maybe less – but Maguire’s descent from England’s most expensive and arguably best defender to a bumbling timebomb has been graceless and gloomy. It’s undeniable, by this point, that he’s regressed as a footballer.
And yet for all the hate online, the conversation around his abseil into aberration and the obvious mistakes he’s been making, it feels unfair. Unjustified, unreasonable and unfunny. Like a joke that’s snowballed: we all know the punchline but none of us can recall who walked into the bar.
Simply put, Harry Maguire is not as bad as you think he is.
It feels like a bold statement, even in strange times. This is a player who has been booed by England fans – yes, fans who don’t normally support him outside the summer months. A player who Luke Shaw has commented (opens in new tab) that he’s never seen talk like this about: and he played with Paul Pogba last season. A player so micro-analysed that a moment of him stepping out to meet his attacker, deconstructed literally by a supporter in his front room, now has millions of views online (opens in new tab).
Where’s the reset button? This is a man who was captain of the second-best club in England just two seasons ago – and you don’t get there by sheer dumb luck. Manchester United actually missed him in their ill-fated Europa League final loss: he was the cornerstone of the back four and talk of England’s choice of whether to pursue a back three or four rested on his availability at the tournament. He then made the official team of Euro 2020 – despite missing the first two games. United’s first loss of last season came after he hobbled off: he missed the following match with a calf injury and was rushed back too soon for the abomination against Liverpool at home.
And from there, Maguire hasn’t really been the same since. Manchester United seldom has as a unit or an institution: whether or not Ralf Rangnick played him towards the end of last season.
No, he’s not been good for a while – but it feels as if Maguire’s absence from the club side he otherwise captains isn’t especially related to their upturn in form; it seems more to do with a change in approach, as Erik ten Hag asks for long balls and a more physical midfield. Yet fans are treating this player like a walking banana skin. Most wouldn’t pick him for England, despite his usually imperious form for his country. Some wouldn’t have him in their 26-strong squad. And talk around him has become quite nasty in some circles.
It feels oddly familiar, too. Phil Jones – a decent defender at his peak – was turned into a meme by fans who saw him more as a gurning pantomime villain than a defensive stalwart. Granit Xhaka has been a topic of ridicule; thought to be the difference between Arsenal winning and losing when often, he sits squarely at a seven out of 10. Dejan Lovren has been in a similar position. Nicolas Otamendi, too – though nostalgia merchants will probably prefer to reminisce over Titus Bramble jokes.
These players weren’t Joker cards, nor were they aces in packs. They were somewhere between with well-viewed fail comps – just like Maguire. So easy is it to forget that at his peak, he’s been dominant in the air, an organiser and a good passer. That he was the ideal centre-back profile on the left of a pairing since he naturally turns inwards on his right foot, ambles from the backline and can play looping passes to his winger or through midfield. He’s had experience in defences that crave possession and those that have surrendered it – he’s fought relegation and battled for the top four.
Margins for defenders are often tighter than the 14 places that separate those worlds. Maguire’s own team-mate at Hull City, Andy Robertson, adjusted incredibly from the drop zone to the Kop. Jonny Evans left a relegated West Brom to sit alongside Maguire at Leicester and qualify for Europe, while Caglar Soyuncu went from being one of the most sought-after centre-backs in Europe to the other end of the league in mere months.
Football is so rarely black and white – even that clumsy Musiala tackle went to VAR. Football loves a villain, but it’s just possible that Harry Maguire isn’t the frowning anti-Cannavaro that he’s made out to be. Talk around him has become toxic – and perpetuating an endless conversation about his shortcomings can't be good for anyone.
He's not going anywhere, after all. And if the Gods of Football have anything to do with it, a redemption arc is just around the corner.
More on Harry Maguire and Manchester United
Harry Maguire has claimed criticism of his game is "about clicks", while Gareth Southgate has backed his defender. Former England international Glen Johnson has suggested Southgate shouldn't pick Maguire out of loyalty, though United team-mate Luke Shaw has affirmed that Maguire is a big part of the Three Lions set-up.
Plans for January at Manchester United are already being drawn up but apparently depend upon the future of Cristiano Ronaldo. A replacement for David De Gea has apparently been identified, while Jude Bellingham is apparently on the radar. United are also in for Barcelona ace Gavi.
Meanwhile, former Manchester United captain Gary Neville has been speaking to FFT about the influence of American owners and how they threaten "the fabric of the English game".
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