PERTH, Australia — It’s a sign of how things are going for Harry Maguire that when Manchester United conceded a goal against Melbourne Victory at the MCG on Friday night, the Australian host broadcaster focused their cameras on him.
Maguire, the most expensive defender in world football, had been outpaced by Victory’s Chris Ikonomidis but he wasn’t alone in being at fault. Luke Shaw and Victor Lindelof were both out of position, but it was Maguire who took most of the blame. He is under the microscope like never before.
The summer tour of Thailand and Australia is being billed as a fresh start for United’s players. Erik ten Hag arrived promising to squeeze more out of a squad which cost hundreds of millions to assemble but could only finish sixth in the Premier League last season, 35 points behind champions Manchester City. Their poor league performance was coupled with dismal cup showings after defeat in the Champions League round of 16, a third round Carabao Cup exit, and FA Cup failure in the fourth round.
Maguire, who by his own admission had a poor campaign, became the poster boy for the team’s dysfunction, both on and off the pitch. There were a series of high profile mistakes including a red card in a 4-1 defeat at Watford which cost Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his job as manager, and also stories of a dressing room tug-of-war with Cristiano Ronaldo leading to question marks over his captaincy.
No one needs a clean slate more than the England defender. Ten Hag arrived in Bangkok ahead of the first pre-season friendly and put one issue to bed immediately. “Harry Maguire is the captain,” said the Dutchman when asked who will wear the armband next season. “I always see the captaincy as an issue that I dictate. The team building for me is an important point and I always talk about a group of leaders. The captain is a really important one and I’m happy with him.”
The debate, though, won’t go away anytime soon.
Ten Hag inherited a squad which already included six senior centre-backs — Maguire, Raphael Varane, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, and Axel Tuanzebe — and he has signed another in Lisandro Martinez, who joined from Ajax for £46.8 m.
Ten Hag knows Martinez well from their time together in Amsterdam and, crucially, the Argentinian is the only left-footed player in the group. In the interests of balance, Ten Hag wants a left-footer to play on the left and a right-footer to play on the right which means Martinez is likely to go straight into the team when United kick off the season against Brighton at Old Trafford on Aug. 7.
And given the captain usually plays every week, Ten Hag admitted during an interview in Melbourne that it’s fair to conclude that Maguire will be Martinez’s preferred partner — as long as he deserves it.
“I think he is [a first-choice player],” said Ten Hag. “He’s proved it in the past but he has also to prove it in the present time and in the future. He has played 60 times for England. Harry is really impressive and I expect a lot from him. But there is also internal competition and that is what a club like Man United needs. You cannot win with 11 players. We need a squad.”
There is also the question about whether Maguire has the pace or ability to defend one-on-one to succeed in Ten Hag’s high-line system. Ten Hag insists he can but proof will only come during the opening weeks of the season. For now, it seems that Lindelof, Bailly and four-time Champions League winner Varane, signed only last summer, will have to wait in the wings but with players of that caliber warming the bench, Maguire does not have much margin for error.
Alejandro Moreno debates whether Lisandro Martinez will be a success at Manchester United.
He might have already won over Ten Hag but he still has work to do to get United supporters back on side. When his name was read out at the MCG ahead of the 3-1 win over Crystal Palace on Tuesday, he was greeted with jeers from large sections of the 76,000-strong crowd. For the first 30 minutes, his every touch was booed and it only stopped when he almost scored.
Donny van de Beek said afterwards he couldn’t understand the reception while United bosses tried to brush it off as pantomime booing of a high-profile Englishman by a harsh Aussie crowd, but it’s not the first time it’s happened. After being substituted during a defeat to Atletico Madrid at Old Trafford in March, he was then sarcastically cheered off the pitch and booed while playing for England in a friendly against Ivory Coast later that month at Wembley.
Ten Hag has promised to offer support but there is a feeling among the coaching staff that the only way to turn the tide is by putting in consistently solid performances. “I will support him everywhere I can but in the end he has to do it by himself and he has the qualities to do it,” said Ten Hag. “He has showed it so often in the past.”
Maguire needs to show it again, all while leading from the front in Ten Hag’s new era. The spotlight is on and so is the pressure.