From the outside looking in, it is painfully obvious that Harry Maguire is struggling. And to anyone but the partisan or hard-faced, it’s not all that funny anymore.
His performances at club level, especially in the 6-1 humping at the hand of Jose Mourinho’s Tottenham, have been lampooned as a sub-plot in the wider comedy of Manchester United’s season so far. But the opening 31 minutes of England’s friendly defeat to Denmark offered the clearest window yet into the mindset of the central defender. Anyone peering in – many with popcorn in hand – can see that he’s not in a good place. That bereft display could only be interpreted as a cry for help.
Given his character, Maguire might prefer to be the butt of everyone’s jokes rather than the recipient of their sympathy but the changing tone in how his struggles are being covered emphasises his predicament. The question now: what can Ole Gunnar Solskjaer do about it?
It is the United boss whose immediate responsibility is to help Maguire find a way through this torrid time. Gareth Southgate offered his support to the defender after his wretched red card and the England manager then suggested that more people should have his back too.
“We have total belief in him,” said Southgate. “He’s been getting all sorts for a while – from some people who should know better.”
We can all speculate over who those people might be but if Southgate was referring to anyone within the United camp, then Solskjaer has to address it as a matter of urgency.
There has been plenty of speculation that Bruno Fernandes did not react well to United caving in to Spurs and Maguire reportedly bore the brunt of the Portuguese star’s frustration. Plenty gets said in the heat of the moment – even among a squad as listless as United’s – but Maguire is seemingly more vulnerable than ever right now. Many outside the United dressing-room have lost faith in Maguire, not that that should concern him. But if it is waning inside the Old Trafford walls too, it only adds another layer to the pile of sh*t Solskjaer has to sift through before the Red Devils go to Newcastle on Saturday night.
When they get there, they will find Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin champing at the bit to compound Maguire’s misery even further. How can Solskjaer mitigate that concern?
One option being floated is not to take the risk at all.
If it wasn’t obvious before, Maguire made clear in 31 chaotic, distracted minutes on Wednesday that he needs a break. Even if everything else was tickety-boo in the 27-year-old’s world right now, that would not change the fact that he has been run seemingly into the ground over the last year.
Harry Maguire has played more minutes than any other player in the world this season (5,509), beating FC Copenhagen defender Victor Nelsson (5,366) into second place. pic.twitter.com/NFEhvwo4g6
— ESPN UK (@ESPNUK) August 17, 2020
No player in the world played more football last season than Maguire, and that is testament to the defender’s technical and mental qualities. Solskjaer could not do without him and the captain was never anything but willing – perhaps too much so. When Maguire was eventually given the opportunity for a breather at the end of the season, off he went to Mykonos.
And then this happened.
With the uncertainty of a retrial hanging over him, no one could blame Maguire for being distracted. His version of events and that of the Greek authorities contrast so wildly that he would need to be a robot for it not to play on his mind.
Some players amid controversy can concentrate entirely on the ball – for some it serves to sharpen that focus. Maguire evidently is not one of them.
And there is no quick end in sight. The wheels of Greek justice turn slowly and it could be two years before Maguire’s case is heard and a resolution reached. The mist may clear as Maguire puts Mykonos further in the rear-view mirror but however long the journey, a Greek courtroom still remains his destination.
In the meantime, Solskjaer needs his captain. And he needs him now.
As miserable as his form has been this season, he has by no means been the worst of a wretched bunch and Solskjaer must take all the help he can get to lift United out of their slump.
Management with hindsight is the easiest gig in the world, but it was suggested prior to Maguire’s appearances against Belgium and Denmark that his time might be better spent this week getting himself away from the limelight, using the space to get his head back in the game. Having missed the last set of internationals in the wake of the initial court verdict, there was no way Maguire was going to volunteer to sit this one out too. But for the player, and his two managers, some headspace would have been far more beneficial in the longer term than whatever it was that the England defender was hoping to achieve by playing in such a forlorn state on Wednesday.
For United, the chance to give Maguire a break has been missed. However poor his form has been, Solskjaer cannot now do without him.
“Everything about him tells me he is a leader,” said Solskjaer upon giving the armband to Maguire and the centre-back is certainly the senior voice, sometimes the only one, in a back four which needs marshalling more than ever before.
Solskjaer cannot find a single defender to partner Maguire so the chances of him stumbling across two competent centre-backs among the seven others within his squad before Saturday are even more remote than United’s title aspirations.
To his left at Newcastle, Maguire will have either a debutant in Alex Telles or Luke Shaw, who was even worse than his captain against Spurs. Whichever full-back Solskjaer selects, they will need to be talked through their Tyneside mission.
Solskjaer could opt to drop Paul Pogba and play a midfielder more minded to protect Maguire, but the centre-back’s circumstances aren’t likely to materially change any time soon, and nor are United’s. Solskjaer has no choice but to play his captain through this slump and hope that Wednesday was Maguire’s rock bottom.