Harry Maguire needs to stabilise United with Leicester looming
Michael Walker: There is an anxious focus on all areas of the Manchester United team
Harry Maguire of Manchester United. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA
The conversation had been nudged towards the size of Harry Maguire’s head. You could see the unease in Jonny Evans, despite his smile. It might be okay for Jamie Vardy to call Maguire “Slabhead” in training, but for Evans to do so in public is another matter. He was already thinking in headlines. And, of course, it’s Manchester United versus Leicester City today.
But then the conversation turned: Vardy may have asked Maguire about the exact diameter of his skull, but Evans was being asked about the metaphorical big head and the impression Maguire did not appear to possess one.
Evans did not really want to get into a dissection of Maguire’s personality but what he would say is that he thinks Maguire and United are “a perfect match” and that Maguire is “cult hero” material.
Maguire, after all, is the down-to-earth Sheffield lad who went to Euro 2016 as an England fan and who two years later was starring for them at a World Cup. He then made a public return in England, not on a chat show, but at a Chesterfield match to watch his brothers play.
The fact United paid £80 million for Maguire at the start of last month, making him the most expensive defender on planet football, was not Maguire’s doing. A £40 million valuation of the 26-year-old would have seemed more realistic, but this is Old Trafford and inflation is part of their business.
United’s transfer business, however, has not been good for a number of years, and Maguire is now part of a squad that has recorded one clean sheet in its past 19 matches, dating from February, and which is already seven points behind Liverpool just four games into the season.
Chelsea clean sheet
The one clean sheet in the run came in Maguire’s debut against Chelsea on this season’s opening day. United won 4-0 but could hardly say the visitors did not have chances. Chelsea hit the woodwork twice.
Since then there has been a 1-1 draw at Wolves, a 2-1 home defeat by Crystal Palace and a 1-1 draw at Southampton.
There is an anxious focus on all areas of the United team – and on its dugout. A clean sheet against Leicester would be as welcome a development as any, even a comprehensive 90 minutes from Paul Pogba.
For the former to happen, one imagines it will require a commanding display from Maguire. That he will be up against Vardy and his Leicester City teammates of the past two seasons makes it all the more enticing, if not for him, then for the neutrals. And for Vardy, who has three goals in his last two Premier League games.
Evans, too, will be motivated. He first went to Old Trafford aged nine, travelling over at weekends from Belfast, and left 18 years later. Via West Brom, he moved to Leicester last season, where he struck up a relationship with Maguire, sometimes in a back five.
Evans is 31, part of Brendan Rodgers’s unbeaten side, but some of him will always be at Old Trafford. Should things go a certain way today, there will be those who ask why United sold Evans for £3 million and bought Maguire for £80 million. It certainly raises a question about market values and whether United sell well, never mind buy well.
Fittingly perhaps, Evans was generous.
“I think him and Man United are a perfect match. He’s exactly what they need at this moment in time,” he said of Maguire. “I think the way he plays and his personality on the pitch is exactly what United need . . . I think he’s a bit of a cult hero, Harry.”
Cult-hero status is a side effect of persuasive style on the pitch. Maguire needs to produce a sustained and effective burst of that to boost and stabilise United. He needs help, from screening midfielders and goalscoring attackers. He needs to be part of a cohesive team. Ángel Di María, Alexis Sánchez, Romelu Lukaku, Memphis Depay and a few other recent big-money signings probably thought so, too.
A problem for United is that it is Leicester who look coherent, both as a club and as a team. Evans says the tone is set in an ambitious boardroom and comes down to them via Rodgers, who is “always trying to coach us and teach us”.
Leicester had spent £95 million – on Youri Tielemans, Ayoze Perez, Dennis Praet and James Justin – before the United money arrived. They have replaced Maguire directly with Caglar Soyuncu, who was signed in 2018. The Turkish defender has been assured. Like Maguire, he’s a big lad.
“A new level” is where Evans says the board wish to see Leicester.
Maguire will have felt the same about the move to Old Trafford, and he deserves four months, not four games, before even an initial assessment can be made. Time and patience are precious commodities in football, though, and United are about to enter their Thursday-Sunday Europa League fixture list. They have a minimum 21 games before Christmas, seven in the next 22 days.
Leicester, by comparison, have a minimum of 15 before Christmas. It is unquestionably an advantage in Premier League terms. It is one of a few comparisons to be made by and of Jonny Evans and Harry Maguire today, and tomorrow.
NORTHERN IRISH PRIDE
Jonny Evans was talking in the aftermath of Northern Ireland’s 2-0 defeat by Germany in Belfast on Monday. Rarely can such a polished Irish performance have produced such contradictory feelings.
The excellence of Michael O’Neill’s players brought pride, the result brought disappointment. It really is saying something about where O’Neill has taken this squad that he could speak of “missed opportunities”.
He and others were gauging Northern Ireland and Germany on equal terms. Germany’s population is 82 million; Northern Ireland’s is 1.8 million, and from them O’Neill has 20-40 who play professional football. They are not equals.
But in the first half in particular, they looked it. Although the Irish have experienced great winning nights against the likes of Hungary, Greece and Ukraine, in performance terms this was arguably the best since O’Neill took over.
Germany are not what they were – they are 15th in Fifa rankings – but they had Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich and Toni Kroos in the team. In the last 10 minutes O’Neil introduced Shayne Lavery from Linfield; Joachim Low sent on Emre Can, now at Juventus and still only 25.
Can gave Germany solidity, which enabled Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry to score Germany’s second in the third minute of injury time.
It meant an underserved score line and people so often work back from the result. Those who were there know it was a different story.