Manchester United will struggle to deal without Harry Maguire when they face Villarreal in the Europa League on Wednesday night, and there is no easy solution.
Maguire’s arrival from Leicester City came a year too late for Jose Mourinho. The previous United manager had named him as his number one target, only to be told he was too expensive to secure. Instead, he was given nothing to help in the middle of defence and proceeded to force his own exit. His replacement, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, has operated serenely in comparison.
There are few reports of tension between Solskjaer and the outgoing Ed Woodward, and he also appears to know his place when it comes to making demands of the Glazers. The United boss gets what he is given and then told to get on with it. Fortunately for Solskjaer, it was apparent that Maguire was indeed the sensible target in his first summer transfer window, and the club were even willing to stump up a single instalment of £80 million to secure his arrival from Leicester.
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The Norwegian identified in Maguire not just a capable defender, but a person who could be professional around the squad. Someone to set standards. That latter quality is now in doubt after his arrest in Greece, but he has consistently been the most reliable player in United’s back five since his arrival.
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That’s not to say he has been perfect, or even exceptional. Maguire is certainly not fleet-footed and while he is also hardly a lumbering galoot, he has shown himself vulnerable to balls over the top or through the middle because he lacks pace compared to the best forwards he comes up against.
As well as problems with his speed, he has often struggled to kick-start counterattacks from the back as Rio Ferdinand might have done, and he does not have the preternatural calm on the ball that comes from a solid technique. Under pressure, he is not particularly adroit at escaping pressure and calming the heart rate of the collective side. Only rarely does he stride forward to offer an additional player in midfield.
The problems that will face United in Maguire’s absence are explained by the qualities of the players who will have to fill in without him. Victor Lindelof is the most experienced player who plays in central defence, and one would expect him to be partnered with Eric Bailly. In truth, Lindelof’s best quality is that he appears relatively resistant to injury and might be the quickest central defender available. But he is as ineffective in attack, and his attitude on the ball is frightening. On the latter point, Bailly is the same, but he also displays a recklessness in the tackle that exacerbates his susceptibility to injury.
Without their traditional defensive guide, the defence will expect the goalkeeper to step in. David de Gea is often reluctant to leave his goalline, let alone command his area or the space outside it, and his jittery performances of late will have shredded any residual authority. The alternative, Dean Henderson, appears to have the same shrill attempt at dominance that Joe Hart attempted. It is hardly convincing.
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How Solskjaer can deal with this is not obvious. Given his lack of tactical nous, presumably Bailly is a straight swap for Maguire and he hopes for the best. With the attacking options at his disposal, and the relative lack of quality for Villarreal, it should probably be enough. But a more nuanced approach might bring rewards.
United’s best results often come when they are on the back foot, allowing attacking teams to pile forward before looping balls over the top. The same should be done here. Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba offer two superb long-range passers who could pick out the runs of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani. By packing the midfield and allowing Fred, or Nemanja Matic - perhaps both - to sit back and clog the middle of the pitch, numbers will provide the protection in lieu of skill.
While Solskjaer and others still pay lip service to the idea of United as a determinedly attacking side, the truth is that for about half, if not more of his career, Alex Ferguson was more than happy to absorb pressure and hit back, particularly in Europe. Solskjaer might want to continue to pretend that he is a swashbuckler too, but a more cynical approach would be more likely to deliver his first trophy for the club.
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