The real problem with Harry Maguire’s defending

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Let’s face it. You’re tired of hearing about Harry Maguire. So am I! So, this morning, I’ve watched hundreds of clips of Harry Maguire and Manchester United’s defensive structures, trying to understand how the Red Devils can progress next season to the point where all the pieces in their puzzle fit together as one coherent unit. Manchester United’s defensive problems are not down to a single player (such as the man often scapegoated for that), but a lack of fit between playing style and personnel. Many of their players don’t fit together from either a defensive or attacking perspective, and a good majority of them actively bring out the worst in each other within Ralf Rangnick’s style of play. But still, a player like Harry Maguire continues to be identified as THE problem for the Red Devils, which evidently isn’t true. So with that, we debunk the Harry Maguire myth, and pose an alternative perspective as to why he’s having a “difficult season” for Manchester United.

THE LACK OF BALANCE

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In conversations with former Premier League defender David Edgar toward the end of January, he detailed what he looks for in a defensive partnership: “To me, you need a Dom Samuel and a David Edgar. You need a sweeper and a stopper.” Referencing his Forge teammate that he played with to close out his career, David posed something that many fans of the game may (wrongly) see as an outdated take using outdated terms. But the balance at Manchester United is perhaps the greatest example in the modern game of exactly why the former Newcastle man may just be correct. When you position one of the slowest defenders in the world, alongside a defender that lacks the pace to cope with that, what you get is a recipe for disaster. Many other top teams throughout history have coped with similarly slow defenses (see Bayern and Germany’s success with Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng), by playing a sweeper-keeper in behind. This becomes even more of a necessity in a high-pressing team deploying a high-line, like many possession-based, press and possess teams implement.

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So now we add another disastrous element to the Manchester United equation. In Ralf Rangnick’s attempts to “control” matches, United typically deploy a high-line. But they don’t have a sweeper keeper in behind to help, nor do they have a defensive partnership capable of handling passes over the top of their defense, due to the lack of speed and the general gaps they create as they cover for each other. David De Gea is one of the most rooted to the spot goalkeepers you’ll see in the modern game, constantly focused on his own positioning to save shots, rather than his positioning to help his team higher up the pitch. This causes a complete lack of fit between Rangnick’s style, the defenders he has at his disposal, and De Gea’s own preferences.

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But now let’s add another set of horrific elements to the equation to compound matters all the more. On the left of Harry Maguire, he has Luke Shaw – a speedy, physical beast of a man. Directly in front of him he has Fred, a completely capable ball winner who excels in the defensive side of the game. Sounds good so far, right? But unfortunately for Maguire, Luke Shaw’s positional awareness never really progressed like many other elements of his game have over the past few years – such as intense carrying up the pitch and creation from wide. He never knows exactly where to be in transitional moments, and frequently finds himself caught too far up the pitch to contribute. If he held a more reserved position on the left, United would miss his quality in the final third. But he would be better set up to aid Harry Maguire, given his excellent acceleration and recovery speed. Again, it’s not necessarily a knock on either Shaw or Maguire, but it’s a partnership that fails to hide their respective weaknesses.

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Fred meanwhile also generally lacks the speed and positional caution to hold a United midfield all on his own as a single pivot, despite being a capable midfield destroyer. He frequently makes unintentional fouls in transition, which on the one hand helps his team, and on the other hand, highlights a key hole in his game. Fred is also incredibly active in stepping out of line himself, and is encouraged to do so in Rangnick’s pressing structures. United’s typical mid to high-block shifts in and out of a 4-1-4-1, meaning only one midfielder protects in front of Maguire’s back-line. This means the United captain often wants to step out of line to track a striker moving into space, where Fred is incapable of helping due to his high position. I’ve notoriously never been good at math, but when you have three left-sided players who find themselves out of position, you find yourself with zero left-sided players in position.

This leads to the biggest problem of all when it comes to the lack of stylistic fit between Maguire and United at this current juncture – his own inability to hold position.

STEPPING OUT OF LINE

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The biggest hole in Maguire’s game has been identified over and over again by the media, and myself, and it’s not a new take. As strikers drift in deep to pick up possession, Maguire will often follow, exposing what’s happening in behind, and his own ability to sprint back in when the ball is progressed closer to goal. It then becomes easy for intelligent forwards like Harry Kane and Antoine Griezmann to target Maguire with these runs in deep, even if they have no intention of receiving the ball. Even worse – Maguire loves to get touch-tight in these moments, which causes two primary issues. First, it becomes very easy for an attacker to quickly change direction, and catch Maguire off guard. This would happen to even the best defenders when tightening up on an opposition attacker. But Maguire already lacks the quickness to react in the moment, and turn his body to help in any way, fashion or form. If he does react at all, he often fouls the player. This is the lesser of two evils, but still a problem for United, as it means a key leader in the team spends the rest of the game on a yellow card. This becomes an even greater concern given the lack of discipline from Fred, who lacks the speed to correctly time his tackles, and Shaw, who wants to bulldoze everyone in his wake. If all three left-sided defensive players find themselves booked, the opposition can continue to probe and push down their own right side for fun.

But so far, none of what we’ve told you is rocket science. It’s all pretty straightforward, and logical in the sense that so many elements to a complex puzzle don’t fit together, and therefore United struggle to win matches. But what has gone underreported in all the discussion surrounding Maguire is just how poor one other element of his game is. It’s not his speed. It’s something else, that is one of the most important elements of the game, and one of the best skills a player can possess.

MAGUIRE SUCKS AT SCANNING

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Sorry for the harshness of the heading, but after watching every single United match this season, and hundreds of clips in preparation for this article, I can tell you with certainty that Maguire gets himself into more problems than he otherwise would due to his inability to adequately scan the field.

His desire to take matters into his own hand and leave his line in pursuit of attackers is an issue of inadequate decision making. But that stems from an issue of inadequate scanning. Maguire fails to turn his head often enough to see the danger, particularly on his blindside or directly in behind. When in possession, it often means that he is scanning for his teammates (a.k.a. his next pass), rather than for the opposition or space. This is essentially the opposite of what you want to scan for first when about to receive a pass. You want to see where the opposition’s defenders are, and then make inferences as to where to take the ball based on either the space available, or the lack of space available. If you have no space and the opposition are closing you down, you can quickly play within your periphery, back the way the ball came, or trust your strength as a hulking 6 foot 2, 220 pound player to hold the ball up. If you have space, you can then quickly scan for your teammates for a pass, or continue advancing into that space to shuffle the opposition out of position and force them to pressure. Either way, scanning for the opposition has to be the first step, and it’s a step that Maguire seems to miss the vast majority of time that he is about to receive the ball.

On Leicester City’s first goal against United as part of a 4-2 route, you can see this inefficiency take centre stage. Despite having plenty of time to scan and see the best options around him, Maguire fails to take into account the best course of action for his first touch. He scans twice for the location of the teammates ahead of him, rather than for the opposition player quickly about to close him down.

This issue becomes heightened out of possession, and it’s why Maguire often steps out of his line to take matters into his own hands. Those classic Maguire mistakes (you know the one’s), almost always come down to a failure to adequately scan the field and then make a sound judgement based on that information. Take for example this clip from PSG’s 3-1 win over United back in 2020-21.

Maguire, only following the flight of the ball, gets caught up in what he can see in front of him – David De Gea stepping off his line to challenge PSG’s Rafinha. Instead of trusting his goalkeeper to cover the goal, he then takes matters into his own hands and sprints to the line, leaving Neymar wide open on the six-yard-line. Obviously the speed of play is high and Maguire can be given sympathy for wanting to make the heroic move, but he fails to scan the field the entire way from start to finish, and fails to make the correct heroic move as a result.

The same could be said for this clip against Leipzig. Defending against two players in the box is never easy, but the United captain fails to assess the flight of the ball, while failing to scan his blindside in the process. He steps out to make the heroic play, without realizing that the man he can see (Poulsen) is never going to get the ball, and the more dangerous player to cover is actually the one in behind him (Kluivert).

The deflection off Christopher Nkunku evidently makes the situation at hand more difficult to deal with, and Maguire’s lack of reaction speed means he can’t adjust quickly enough. But that’s only after he makes the decision to take his body in that momentum, and in fact, before he fully commits.

After the ball has already past Lindelof, Maguire finds himself in a good enough position to deal with both players at once, which is exactly where he needs to be, given that he’s the only player that can help the situation. But instead, he over-commits himself toward Poulsen, completely forgetting about the ghostly goal-scorer in behind.

If Maguire simply scanned his surroundings more, he would be able to make better inferences about where to position himself, and (hopefully) hold his position more often. But in his quest to be the hero, he ends up being too proactive in stepping out, rather than proactive in holding position, or reactive in recognizing how the situation is unfolding and then making inferences. We’ve already spoken about how the players around him don’t help that issue, and so Maguire needs to simply hold his position more as the leader and captain of the team. De Gea won’t sweep in behind, while Fred and Shaw are pushed too far high in different moments to adequately help. But even without these issues working in tandem, staying put might be the best approach for any defender, let alone one who lacks both recovery speed, and the ability to quickly pivot direction.

For the impatient player, staying put will feel like the wrong move. But waiting instead of would allow Maguire to have a more advantageous starting position when the ball eventually comes back in and reaches a genuinely more dangerous area.

In dropping toward the ball, the striker moves further away from goal, and not only that, but receives with their back to goal eight times out of ten. So why follow? In holding line height, Maguire can then sense the danger later on, and use his physicality to deal with situations when the time is right. He will then better support the players around him, for example giving Fred or Shaw more time to get back into position; while supporting his own lack of speed in the process.

CONCLUSION

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Harry Maguire is a problem for Manchester United. But only within Rangnick’s style of play, and the players around him. By scanning the field more, Maguire can solve many of the defensive holes in his game, and utilize his strengths closer to goal. By also being a little less proactive in stepping out and trying to be the hero, Maguire can simultaneously support his own strengths, and that of his teammates. The scapegoating of the United captain has gone too far, and many footballing fans can’t even adequately identify the true issue behind Harry Maguire’s failures from a personal perspective – his failure to adequately scan the field and then make inferences.


So there it is! The real problem with Harry Maguire’s defending. This article was written in preparation for our long-form answer to this week’s Tactical Thinker – How would you solve Manchester United’s defensive concerns?

Be sure to check out more on United this season, including…

-> Why Manchester United should play 3-4-1-2
-> Why Fred and McTominay are not the problem for Manchester United
-> United’s Tactical Follies in the Post-Ronaldo Era – In-Depth Analysis
-> Ralf Rangnick – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis
-> Fred – Manchester United – Tactical Analysis
-> Why Declan Rice is perfect for Manchester United

Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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