Harry Maguire: A Tactical Analysis

The reported £80 million fee paid by Manchester United made Harry Maguire the most expensive defender in football history, surpassing the £75 million paid by Liverpool for the now Champions League and PFA Player’s Player of the Year winner, Virgil Van Dijk. It’s fair to say Van Dijk has proven to be value for money but will the same be said of Maguire 18 months into his Manchester United career?

The answer to such a question, I am hoping, will become increasingly apparent throughout this tactical analysis as I consider his career so far, the footballing capabilities he has demonstrated during this time as well as some evaluation of Manchester United’s pre-existing defensive options.

Accordingly, I will attempt to make an informed decision as to what extent Maguire’s presence will be an improvement – if at all. But first, let us contemplate how a lad from Sheffield, having only played his first full season in England’s top flight at the age of 24 could, less than 2 years later, be worth the astronomical sum of 80 million pounds.

Early Career

Maguire began his professional career with Sheffield United, making his debut in the Championship at just 17 years old. However, it was Sheffield United’s relegation that year which hastened Maguire’s ascent the following season; starting all of the 46 League One fixtures they played, finishing 3rd overall before losing on penalties to Huddersfield Town in the Playoff Final. The following season saw Maguire again feature in all of United’s 46 League One games as they themselves, again lost out at the Playoffs.

Maguire in action for Sheffield United.

Maguire’s 3rd season in League One for the Blades saw him claim their Player of the Year for the 3rd consecutive time and this continued consistency and dependability at such a young age attracted the interest of, then Premier League side, Hull City who were willing to stump up £2.5 million for him in 2014 – a higher fee than that received from Everton for Dominic Calvert-Lewin.

Maguire would make his debut for Hull City in a Europa League tie at just 21 years old before spells in the Championship on loan at Wigan Athletic and then with Hull, upon his return, in the 2015/16 season.

This rapid rise up the English football league indicates Maguire’s ability to adapt his playing style to different leagues and their different demands as well as improve his overall game in relation to the surrounding competition – an ability noted by Leicester City and underlined by their willingness to spend £17 million for his services after just his first season in the English Premier League.

Maguire signs for Leicester City.

International influence

The ability of Maguire to not only swiftly transition to football’s highest level but also to rise to the new challenges posed there is no more apparent than through his international career to date – specifically his heroic performances at the 2018 World Cup. 

Having only played 30 minutes of international football at the Under-21 level, Maguire was handed his full England debut on the 8thof October 2017 with England having already qualified for the 2018 World Cup. This afforded Southgate the option to experiment with his selection and implement the now customary 5-3-2 system which proved so effective at the World Cup. Maguire would soon establish himself at the heart of this new-look defence with England achieving clean-sheets in subsequent International friendlies against the likes of Germany, Holland and Brazil – the latter for the first time since 1990.

Key to Maguire’s ever-presence in the England defence since his debut are his ball-playing abilities and aerial dominance, prompting high-praise indeed from Gareth Southgate during the World Cup: ‘his use of the ball is as good as any centre-half at the tournament’. This is reinforced by Maguire’s statistics from his performances at the World Cup, averaging a 92.7% passing accuracy overall with 22.3 forward passes at a success rate of 89.7% and 5.7 successful passes to the final-third per game.

Further, Maguire also posed a significant offensive threat, initiating England attacks from the back with progressive passing and surging runs which effectively broke opposition lines. The 1.7 progressive runs and 2.1 touches in the opposition box made per game evidence this, coupled with a 67.2% success rate in aerial duels culminating in 2 goal contributions; a near-post flick-on assist for Kane’s winner against Tunisia before an emphatic opener against Sweden in the Quarter Final as he met Ashley Young’s corner.

Maguire heads home for England. After the game, Southgate would describe him as a ‘giant in both boxes’.

Maguire’s performances at the World Cup illustrate his ability to operate in different systems and, not only perform, but excel on the biggest stage of all. This is reinforced by his latest season in the Premier League with Leicester City as he adapted to both the more counter-attacking approach of Claude Puel before Brendan Rodger’s introduction of a greater emphasis on possession and pressing.

Versatility

The evidential attacking prominence of Maguire is not, however, shown to be a consequence of the greater licence granted to centre-backs to get forward in a five-man defence – nor does it exist to the detrement of his defensive duties. This is highlighted in the table below which also offers comparison with Manchester United’s Phil Jones and Chris Smalling, the likely candidates to be replaced by Maguire as Victor Lindelöf’s new defensive partner.

A significant issue for United last season was the inability to link play from defence to midfield, an issue heightened by the departure of target-man Romelu Lukaku – making the long-ball approach less viable.

A modern-day defender

The contrast between Maguire’s passing numbers and those of Smalling and Jones is staggering, particularly the number of forward passes and passes to the final-third. Additionally, Maguire’s 2.43 progressive runs per game also put those of Smalling (0.22) and Jones (0.79) to shame. While his 0.26 shot assists per game are significantly higher than Smalling’s 0.09 and Jones’ 0.00 for the 2018/19 Premier League season.

2018/19 Premier League (Per Game)Harry Maguire Chris SmallingPhil Jones
Passing accuracy88.9%88.6%94.5%
Forward passes21 at 82.2%11.62 at 75.7%15.49 at 88.9%
Long passes6.54 at 69.3%2.96 at 39.6%1.32 at 45%
Passes to final 3rd8.1 at 77.6%3.29 at 58.2%3.76 at 78.9%

More alarming is the comparison of Maguire’s attacking and creative output when compared with that of Fred, the Brazilian midfielder and United’s most expensive summer-signing of 2018 (a reported £52 million deal). Fred averaged less forward passes (17.71) at a lower success-rate (75%) than Maguire in the Premier League last season and Maguire’s long-passing also outperforms the Brazilian’s 6.12 at 63.2% success.

In his 2 seasons with Leicester in the Premier League, Maguire was twice involved in a greater number of goals (5 in 2017/18 and 3 in 2017/18), with Fred registering 1 goal and 1 assist in the league last season. The £80 million fee for Maguire is, already, looking increasingly less ludicrous. This, without having yet considered what Maguire has to offer United purely defensively and in retrospect of their worst defensive record in the league for over 40 years which saw them concede 54 goals. 

Defensive ability

The table below illustrates Maguire’s defensive pre-eminence over both Smalling and Jones in the Premier League last season. Maguire’s superior reading of the game and applied aggression is apparent through his superior number of interceptions per game. He also surpasses the figures of Jones and Smalling for offensive duels; attempting 2.58 per game at a success rate of 48.8% in comparison to Smalling’s 0.59 Jones’ 1.05.

2018/19 Premier League (Per Game)Harry MaguireChris SmallingPhil Jones
Defensive Duels4.24 at 76.3%6.68 at 66.7%6.33 at 77.1%
Interceptions6.184.775.74
Recoveries*12.3312.81 11.93

The need for a commanding aerial presence at the heart of United’s defence is apparent given the 13 set-piece goals they conceded in the league last season. However, of greater impact will be Maguire’s aggression and willingness to commit himself beyond the defensive line in order to win back the ball or stifle opposition counters.

This is illustrated both in the table, upon learning that 18.1% of Maguire’s 12.33 recoveries take place in the opposition half in contrast to Smalling’s 10.6% and Jones’ 12.2%, as well as through the in-game photos which highlight Maguire’s pressing and aggression.

In-Game Scenarios

Nowhere was the lack of aggression inherent in United’s defence last season more exposed than in the 4-0 defeat suffered to Everton in the closing stages of the league campaign. A review of Gylfi Sigurdsson’s strike to make it 2-0 neatly highlights the passive nature of the United defence and the devastating consequences of it.

The comparative photos below, taken from United’s defeat to Everton and Leicester’s 3-0 win over Arsenal, evidence the benefits of a higher defensive line led by a centre-back who possesses the confidence and ability to go beyond it.

The distance between United’s defence and midfield leaves them vulnerable to counters.

As the ball breaks to Idrissa Gueye he is able to exploit the space between United’s defence and midfield, initiating a dangerous counter-attack as Lindelöf delays engagement and surrenders more ground. Contrastingly, the image below outlines Maguire’s superior positioning and capability to alleviate potential quick-fire counters as he steps in to block Lacazette’s advancement.

Maguire’s positioning and higher defensive line enables him to stifle potential counters.

Sigurdsson’s goal from United’s 4-0 dismantling by Everton, pictured below, outlines the potential end-product of such counters to a defence which lacks an aggressive enforcer, like Maguire. Sigurdsson (a renowned long-shot specialist) is afforded space to drive into before rifling a shot inside De Gea’s near-post.

United’s desperate need for Maguire was plain to see and, undoubtedly, played a large role in the huge fee Leicester were able to levy for his services – and equally to the willingness of United to meet it. This fee, however, must be viewed contextually.

Value for money?

Despite having spent nearly £80 million collectively on the likes of Smalling, Jones, Marcos Rojo and Eric Bailly, United remain no closer to emulating the late, great defensive partnership between Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The role of Van Dijk’s £75 million fee to inflating the market for influential, commanding and aerially dominant Premier League centre-backs must also be considered as a factor behind Leicester’s capability to demand such a sum.

United’s underwhelming centre-backs.

Resultingly, comparions with Van Dijk inevitable. However, Van Dijk’s statistics from his 2018/19 Premier League campaign do not greatly overshadow those of Maguire. While enjoying a greater success-rate in defensive duels (79.1%) and overall passing accuracy (92.4%), Van Dijk yields to Maguire’s passing-range; his final third and long passing falling to 74% and 56% respectively.

Maguire also outperformed Van Dijk last season in terms of average interceptions per game at 6.18 to Van Dijk’s 5.6, although the greater average possession of Liverpool carries some influence here. However, Maguire remains seemingly unrivalled in respect to his offensive contribution and influence in initiating attacking scenarios for his side, averaging a greater number of shot assists per game (0.26) than Van Dijk (0.13) as well as progressive runs (2.43) in contrast to Van Dijk’s (0.95).

Counter to this is the argument that Van Dijk was not recruited to facilitate offensive play – Liverpool were not in need of goals, scoring 78 in the premier league the year before his arrival. However, this is less the case concerning Maguire. United have been unable to surpass the 78 goals scored by Liverpool that season in any Premier League campaign since Sir Alex Ferguson’s final year (2012/13) – scoring 86 and winning the league by 11 points.

Therefore, while Maguire has a greater task at hand, his impact as a consequence can seemingly be even greater to United than that of Van Dijk to Liverpool. Moreover, an often overlooked consideration when assessing the potential impact of an incoming player is their temperament and personality, aside from their statistical output.

Personality and leadership

That Maguire possesses a strong character is plain to see from his influence over the England team at the World Cup. Such leadership qualities, both in a dressing room where the atmosphere has often been questioned as well as on the pitch where United clearly lack leaders, could yet prove invaluable.

Compelling evidence of Maguire’s 10/10 personality.

Maguire has the potential to not only influence but improve the players around him, much like Van Dijk has done at Liverpool with the likes of Joel Matip and youngster Joe Gomez. United’s inclusion of Axel Tuanzebe in the squad for their opening game of the season at home to Chelsea certainly points towards this, as yet, hope.

The early signs were encouraging as United emphatically beat Chelsea 4-0 in the opening game of the 2019/20 season – thier first clean-sheet in 11 premier league games. Maguire certainly looked like a leader, briefly taking charge of a huddle during the celebrations of Rashford’s opening goal after a lacklustre start to the game – an action later emulated by academy graduate Scott McTominay following United’s third. Harry Maguire’s influence is already plain to see. 

Published by Kris Woodward

Warwick University graduate with a passion for football. Posting in-depth football analysis primarily.

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