The less he plays, the harder he is to ignore – a condition that only affects the highest profile players, and this week never more so for Harry Maguire, the lost ship of English football who can now be seen out there in the fog being called back in by a leader who has never lost faith. –
The former Manchester United captain, who has not been included in a starting line-up for his club since the Brentford disaster on August 13, is back and likely to start for England in the Nations League against Italy. The £85million defender, cut loose by Erik ten Hag and part of a United revival only for his absence, was offered the full backing of the England manager. This has been a devastating year for Maguire on the pitch, and Southgate knows it and, for now, sees something worth salvaging. He gave every indication that Maguire would start in Milan.
“If we thought there were experienced players ready to come in and play at a level above him, it would be a different assessment and in some positions there would be a different level of competition that way,” Southgate said. Maguire was, Southgate said, “our most dominant centre-back in the air”. With John Stones suspended for his red card in Hungary hammering Molineux in June, options are narrowing. But with a team of three at the back, it looks as if Southgate will choose Maguire ahead of Marc Guehi and also Fikayo Tomori, for whom the San Siro is the home ground.
“Him [Maguire] and John is incredible on the ball, really,” Southgate said, “the amount of pressure they’ve taken for the team in tournaments we’ve played … because we don’t always have that midfielder who can get on in the game. That means there is enormously more pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well, and those two are as good as anyone in world football at doing that.
He went on to invoke the experience of his rugby union colleague Eddie Jones and his decision to select his “undercooked” Saracens stars despite reservations that they would play for the 2020-21 season in the Second Division Championship. Southgate had noticed Jones’ dilemma when he read his latest book, having been an observer at Jones’ training sessions in the past.
“With the Saracens players, he [Jones] felt they were his best players and even though they were undercooked, they were still going to be better than players who weren’t up to par,” Southgate said. “So, I don’t think there’s a lot of players who aren’t here now at the level yet to go in and play. Look, it’s obviously not an ideal situation. You want your best players to be playing regularly so they’re physically on a good place and mentally in a good place But he [Maguire] is an important player for us. I think it’s important to support our best players.
“We feel Harry is an important player”
At least the Saracens players got game time, it was pointed out. Maguire has started just one game since Brentford, the Europa League defeat to Real Sociedad on September 8, and played just 10 minutes of Premier League football in that period.
“Well, they [Saracens internationals] didn’t play at the level,” Southgate said. “Physically, rugby is different to football in that the level of league is lower than international [standard] and if you go down the league, it’s not really a test for your better players. So our players will actually work physically every day with top players and they have played some European football as well.”
The willingness to make decisions regardless of club form, and to stick with stalwarts who have gone to two tournament semi-finals and one final, goes strong with Southgate. In Maguire’s defence, the one Nations League game he didn’t start last June was the last, the most damaging 4-0 defeat to Hungary in which he played the last five minutes as a substitute. Southgate suggested he had been forced to compromise for the four games and, without going into detail, appeared more determined than ever to stand his ground.
“Whatever reputation I have, I put it on there,” he said, with a rueful smile and a nod to the hostility he faced in the second game at Molineux. “I think you always have to back your judgment and we feel he’s an important player.”
There are other problems surrounding England’s defense that go beyond even Maguire. For the first two Nations League games, against Hungary in Budapest and Germany in Munich, Southgate chose a three-man back. With England underwhelming, he switched to a four for the Molineux games against Italy and Hungary and somehow things got worse. Now, with the prospect of England’s first international relegation in 150 years, albeit only the Nations League, he must find something to rely on.
Maguire survives. Perhaps the connection is a little stronger with a manager who was himself a centre-back and also felt the most unforgivable fury that the English team can unleash on the English public. Beyond those two games against Italy and then Germany on Monday at Wembley, there is still the sea of the next two months of club football for Maguire to navigate to join the World Cup squad in November. It’s a long way to go, but he’s got hope.