Harry Maguire had a passable night at Molineux. He had his good moments and his bad and probably finished the evening in credit. It’s still far too early to be judging his Manchester United career; that assessment will not be due for years. But Monday evening provided a roughly accurate portrayal of what he is.
Is that the physically imposing obelisk who headed clearance after clearance, or the slightly oafish hologram that Raul Jimenez ghosted through in the first half?
Both, really. Maguire’s attributes cast him as something between a ‘good’ and ‘very good’ player, but his strengths are tempered by some flaws. There’s nothing wrong with that – there are very few defenders for whom that isn’t the case – but therein lies the difficulty of an £80m transfer.
It creates a natural pressure on a player and there are contrasting case studies into where that can lead. But it also perpetuates a nonsense cycle of rhetoric and counter-bluster, creating a situation in which every split-second of involvement is definitive, argument-ending proof of something.
Monday’s Mediawatch did a fine job of identifying one side of that conflict, taking aim at a Daily Mirror columnist who compared Maguire’s new partnership with Victor Lindelof to the great Vidic and Ferdinand axis.
‘Not since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic or, before them, Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister, have United had such a formidable duo at the heart of the defence.’
It’s very obviously very silly, but it’s no worse than what it corresponds with. With a fee that large comes an appetite to identify even minor faults and revel in fleeting moments of contrived hilarity. ‘LOL at X’ types Generic Internet User 5678929423 as some imperfection reveals itself during a game, causing the laugh-cry emojis to dance like fireflies. Miss a tackle, slice a clearance? No further questions, Your Honour…
It’s between those two poles that Harry Maguire now exists, caught between two extreme states of wilful denial. Football’s value system has become so detached from reality that transfer fees of a certain size comes with the illusory promise of perfection. Instead of seeing players for what they are – in most cases, a collection of varying abilities relevant to different disciplines within the game – they’re subject to binary assessments: either they’re worth it or they’re not.
It brings Romelu Lukaku to mind. There are other examples, certainly, but it’s hard to think of another player who more regularly fell foul of that issue. Lukaku is quite a good player. He can be brilliant and awful, ruthless and hopeless, and sometimes all within the same game. Equally, during any 90-minute appearance, Lukaku could not only be relied upon to give a full account of his strengths and weaknesses, but to also play in a way which revealed exactly how he was feeling about himself.
He remains highly cyclical. His peaks and troughs are more pronounced than most, but the median point between the two certainly casts him among the better forwards in European football. That’s hardly revelatory, but how often do you hear him described in such a way? How regularly during his time in England were those the terms used to describe Lukaku? Rarely. He was either good or bad, and placed on either side of a thick line drawn by the fee Manchester United agreed to pay Everton.
Harry Maguire is a less extreme case, but two games into his United career, symptoms of the same ailment are beginning to appear. It’s already imperative to have a position on him and to spin whatever he does on the pitch in a way which suits that agenda.
To his loyalists, each one of his headers at Molineux was more triumphant than the last. Every shout of encouragement to his teammates was a show of the qualities that he has and which United need. To his detractors, the joy was in seeing his known weaknesses manifest – that awkward Jimenez moment, the occasional hoofed clearance or that lunging foul on Adama Traore. What he did well, those people pretended not to notice.
Is there an argument here, or even a specific point to be made? Not really. Instead, it’s an observation about how a lot of players, particularly at the highest level, are now viewed solely through the prism of the arbitrary values assigned to them. It’s a rabbit hole, of course, but if Leicester aren’t as wealthy as they are and felt compelled to sell Maguire for £30m less, what is the perception of him then? What if every club which negotiates with Manchester United doesn’t know that they can afford to meet almost any asking price they’re quoted? What then? How would Paul Pogba be viewed? How about Lukaku?
But this is also a reflection on how difficult it must be for the modern player to be measured against a standard which he can never match. Particularly so for someone like Maguire. He’s a good player, occasionally even an excellent one, but how can he ever defeat his own value? There will always be a flaw somewhere – a still-screen which will show some kind of limitation, or perhaps capture his vending machine build in a comedic, mocking pose.
The way the game is digested isn’t going to change. It’s certainly not going to change just because somebody on a website suggests that it should. That’s a shame, though. Alongside the more natural challenges that occur within every career, it’s sad that players now also have to overcome these artificial obstacles which, generally, are being intentionally built to impossible heights.
Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.