Harry Maguire was benched for Manchester United’s win over Liverpool and manager Erik ten Hag’s reaction speaks volumes, writes PAUL HIRST.
Harry Maguire may have been dropped from the Manchester United squad on Monday, but don’t expect to see the England defender sitting on the bench for five or six games in a row this season.
Although the game against Liverpool was an important game – and Erik ten Hag’s decision to leave Maguire on the bench was a big call – the Dutchman intends to use his captain a lot this season. United have said they will not sell Maguire either, despite Chelsea’s interest in the player.
Ten Hag plans to rotate his centre-backs this term – a wise move given United could play up to 63 games.
The question is: how many big games will Maguire play? Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Maguire was a guaranteed starter in every game, regardless of level of opposition. In Solskjaer’s last full season in charge – when United finished second – Maguire started 51 of 61 games and he would have played even more had he not suffered an ankle injury towards the end of the campaign.
What may worry the 29-year-old United captain is the glowing manner in which Ten Hag spoke of his replacement, Raphael Varane, following the stunning 2-1 win over Liverpool at Old Trafford.
Uninvited, the United manager mentioned Varane’s name twice in a five-minute interview on Sky Sports. When asked about Bruno Fernandes captaining the team in Maguire’s absence, Ten Hag was quick to praise the Portuguese playmaker but then went on to praise Varane. “He [Fernandes] was encouraged by the captaincy, he showed leadership and, together with Rapha Varane, made a huge difference. said Ten Hag.
When asked about the leadership qualities Casemiro would bring to the team, Ten Hag again spoke about Varane’s influence.
“It’s important to have leadership and players who have won trophies and it [Casemiro] did it, Rapha Varane did it, and [Cristiano] Ronaldo,” he added. “You need advice for young players. We hope that their presence will be a stimulus for the rest.
It would be wrong to suggest that Ten Hag doesn’t see Maguire as a leader – he would have stripped him of the captain’s armband at the start of the season if he wasn’t confident in his leadership skills. But looking at Varane’s performances, it’s easy to see why Ten Hag was impressed with the French player.
Maguire is better than Varane with the ball at his feet, but last season the United captain rarely played with the authority his rival did on Monday.
Varane issued decisive challenges to James Milner and Roberto Firmino deep inside United’s penalty area, he won his six headers and communicated well with his central defensive partner, Lisandro Martinez. Varane agreed it was his most satisfying performance since joining United from Real Madrid for £34million just over a year ago.
“I really enjoyed – the atmosphere, the spirit of the team,” said Varane, 29. “I came to England to feel these emotions after everything I left behind in Madrid. The crowd, the fans and the brawl on the pitch were incredible.
Varane had a troubling first season with United. The four-time Champions League winner has missed 17 games amid four separate injury complaints and a coronavirus bout. Now, after a bespoke fitness regimen in pre-season, he insists he is back in top form.
“We know how demanding the Premier League is, so I’ve worked hard to be fit and ready,” he said. “I’ve shown in the past what I can do when I’m fit, so that’s my focus for this season.”
That Varane has combined so well with Martinez bodes well for Ten Hag and less so for Maguire.
The 5ft 9in Argentina defender may not be as effective against some taller opponents, but he showed some fighting spirit, shaking Mohamed Salah with an early foul. Martinez made three blocks, which was more than any other player.
“He brings determination, drive and he has that mentality, that fighting spirit,” Varane said of the £55m signing from Ajax.
Ten Hag prefers a left-footed/right-footed combination at center back, so a left-footed Martinez is the natural choice to play on that side of defence. It is assumed that Varane, Maguire and Victor Lindelof will compete for the other centre-back position, although Maguire has played on the left side in the past. Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe, the other central defenders in the squad, are free to leave. Bailly will join Marseille on loan and the deal will become permanent if the French club qualify for the Champions League.
Maguire will understandably have been disappointed to have been left out of the squad for such a big game, but he’s a strong character. He won’t be sulking and, according to those who know him best, he’ll be stepping up his efforts to make sure he’s in Ten Hag’s thoughts for Saturday’s match at Southampton.
– The temperature
Originally published as Why Manchester United captain Harry Maguire should stay on the bench in big games