Defending is the responsibility of the collective, not any individual. You hear about the attacker who single-handedly beat an entire defence but never about the defender who single-handedly repelled an entire attack. And yet defenders are often judged on moments when they are separated from the rest of the herd, isolated one-against-one and the last thing standing in the way of a clear-cut chance or a certain goal.
For the first, Maguire was facing an onrushing and in-form Jarrod Bowen, who had just plucked Bruno Fernandes’s cross-field pass out of the sky, turned and started charging on the counter-attack. Maguire stood his ground and held his position inside his own penalty area, waiting. When Bowen arrived, he positioned his body to show him outside then stepped across to win the ball back, timing his challenge perfectly.
Not long after, it was Michail Antonio’s turn. The West Ham had already taken the ball deep in his own territory, outmuscled Raphael Varane on the halfway line and was confidently striding forward. Maguire engaged by edging him wider and wider out to the right, then stepped in at the right moment to steal possession away. Old Trafford burst into a warm and relieved round of applause, just as it had after the denial of Bowen.
Those two moments were excellent examples of one-on-one, last-ditch defending of open space, the type of situations that the United captain has not always excelled at. Maguire, 28, himself would be the first to admit that he has struggled for form over the last couple of months especially, during which he has been stuck in his worst rut since a similar drop-off at the start of last season.
But at least back then, his status as a regular starter and captain was not being called into question. That is no longer the case.
When a recent chest injury left United without a player who was ever-present under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Norwegian’s successor Ralf Rangnick appeared in no rush to bring Maguire back in straight away, naming him on the substitutes’ bench twice in succession for the trips to Aston Villa and Brentford. Raphael Varane and Victor Lindelof is a partnership many United supporters would be happy to see tested.
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return has added another senior figure to the dressing room that already includes Fernandes and David de Gea. Rangnick was recently forced to insist that Maguire would remain captain. It was perhaps inconsequential but nevertheless striking that, after being introduced off the bench at Brentford, Maguire did not immediately take the armband, only collecting it from Fernandes much later in the game.
The spotlight on Maguire feels that little bit brighter, a tad harsher than before too, and one of his problems may be that the weaknesses in his game are magnified in those individual one-on-one moments that defenders are judged upon. In an age where it can feel that centre-halves have to be complete players, his relative lack of pace and agility can leave him exposed in tight spaces and leave him looking ungainly and cumbersome.
There have been lapses in concentration – such as in the defeat at Leicester City in October, when he returned quickly from a calf injury – and moments where an eagerness to fight fires has only fanned flames. The mix-up and collision with Luke Shaw in the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool would have been more forgivable had the same not happened in the 6-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur last season.
Yet it can feel like while Maguire’s mistakes come under the microscope, the many things that he does better than practically every other defender at United and all but a handful of other centre-halves in the league are missed. The challenges on Bowen and Antonio were picked out by many as the highlights of a much-improved performance on Saturday, yet there was more to admire.
One of his greatest strengths is his aerial ability, which regularly sees Maguire top charts for number of duels won among Premier League defenders. While he could make that count on set-pieces in the opposition’s box more often, it is a defensive weapon first and foremost, and only one player won more aerial duels than the United captain against a West Ham side that is known for its physical presence.
There was a greater awareness about Maguire’s play than previously seen this term too, a better appreciation of when to defend on the front foot and when to hold his position. Eight minutes in, he stepped up into West Ham’s half to press and steal the ball off Bowen’s toes, then jumped in and won a 50-50 with Tomas Soucek. Later, he was more reserved, holding back to intercept a Vladimir Coufal pass and, in the same motion, play a first-time through ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, setting United on the attack.
That interception-cum-pass might have been something of a happy accident, but there were also plenty of intentional bits of playmaking, not least the low, drilled pass into the feet of Fernandes that had broken two lines of West Ham resistance minutes earlier. In fact, the most impressive aspect of Maguire’s game was one that is continually overlooked: his ability on the ball, unrivalled among United’s other centre-back options.
United’s long overdue first shot on target came after a long, raking Maguire pass out to the left wing for Alex Telles in the build-up. That was a feature of Rangnick’s approach to the second half. With West Ham reluctant to press high, Maguire was given the time and space to pick out ambitious passes. Telles and the eventual match-winner Marcus Rashford, attacking the wide left, were often the recipients. No United player moved the ball further up the pitch than Maguire or played as many passes into the final third.
That would appear to be well-suited to Rangnick’s more direct, vertical style of play. “It was a very good performance from both centre backs, defensively almost without any mistake on the ball,” the United interim manager said afterwards. “Some long balls in the first half, two or three of them that they would not necessarily have played,” he cautioned, “but as I said defensively [Maguire] was very present, he was vocal on the pitch. He played like a captain should play.”
And even if defending is a collective responsibility, as mentioned, it should also be acknowledged that one of United’s best performances of the season in terms of limiting the opposition’s attack coincided with Maguire’s return. Given how often he can be singled out for criticism, it seems only fair that he should also be singled out for praise. For when their captain is playing at his true level, United are a better team for it.
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