Despite the clamour for Gareth Southgate to axe Harry Maguire, the England manager is determined to stick by his centre-back. And so he should…
“I’ll never pick on reputation,” said Gareth Southgate when, as an international manager, he barely had one of his own. Now, with his far greater standing, he’s willing to stake it on Harry Maguire’s inclusion in his World Cup plans.
The reaction, as with anything concerning Maguire, has been extreme. Questions over whether the Manchester United defender warrants a place in the England side are legitimate given the year he has endured and his current standing at Old Trafford. Equally justified is Southgate’s faith in a player who has earned the trust of his international boss, not with recent club form, but his overall body of work over 46 caps.
Maguire has been Southgate’s first pick at the heart of his defence, whatever shape it has taken, for five years. Even during the last 12 to 18 months, when the 29-year-old has looked shaky, to put it kindly, at club level, rarely has he taken that form with him to St George’s Park and on to the European Championship, World Cup qualifying and Nations League stages.
As he has been on many other occasions during his tenure as England boss, Southgate was pitch-perfect in his response to questions over Maguire’s status ahead of the Nations League trip to Italy. He was clear in his backing for the centre-back while offering sound reasoning.
“He is our most dominant aerial centre-back,” said Southgate. “Him and John Stones are incredible with the ball – the amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game. It means there is a huge amount more pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well and those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”
That last part of Southgate’s defence is open to debate but only the banter mob who view Maguire as a comedy figure to be mocked would quibble with the rest.
Granted, Maguire hasn’t made life any easier for himself in recent months at club level – few at Manchester United have – but those who sneer at his placing in Southgate’s pecking order are also ignoring the lack of alternatives.
The manager admitted the absence of a genuine rival for a centre-back spot had enhanced his reliance on Maguire. “If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above him there would be a different consideration and in some positions there would be a different level of competition in that way,” he said.
Who would step in if Southgate listened to the clamour? Eric Dier is back in the reckoning and the Tottenham defender is in with a good shout of playing alongside Maguire if England’s rearguard takes the shape of a three. Otherwise, in the final squad before the World Cup finals, you have Conor Coady, Marc Guehi and Fikayo Tomori.
Guehi and Tomori have three international starts between them and though their club form has been creditable, neither is demanding to be picked and Southgate needs to see much, much more before he bins one of his most-trusted lieutenants for a rookie.
Maguire, of course, has to repay his manager’s faith with a solid performance in Milan and a similarly fuss-free display against Germany at Wembley on Monday. Any level of uncertainty will only amplify the noise around the United captain for two months before Qatar. But a serene pair of performances will solidify Southgate’s stance that Maguire’s record in huge games for England, if not United, merits such faith.
It was barely a year ago that Maguire was one of England’s best players during the European Championships, at a time when his United form was scratchy, and he was similarly outstanding at the last World Cup. He rightly has the manager’s trust and Southgate deserves the public’s.