Erik ten Hag has a major tactical decision to make with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire. Maguire signed for United for £80million from Leicester in 2019.
Then-manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Maguire was “a great reader of the game and has a strong presence on the pitch”. It’s safe to say things didn’t turn out that way.
Maguire has been a constant source of frustration among much of the fan base for some dismal defensive displays. However, even Maguire’s fiercest critics recognize his ability to carry the ball from deep. This attribute would seem ideal for ten Hag.
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Ajax centre-backs Lisandro Martínez and Jurrien Timber are often tasked with receiving the ball and kicking off the Dutch champions’ warm-up game. However, Maguire’s tendency to make horrible mistakes, combined with an occasional lack of agility, would hamper his effectiveness in this style of play.
Ten Hag’s Ajax play with intensity, pressing the opponent high on the pitch. Maguire has excelled on teams that do the opposite.
At Leicester and for England, he played fantastically in teams with a regular back five who relied on opponents during breaks. Playing in an organized 5-3-2/3-5-2 gives footballers like Maguire extra security.
Errors are more likely to be corrected by other defenders than by a four-man defender. Also, ball carriers know there will be more support behind them if an attack fails.
It’s no coincidence that Maguire’s worst performances have come at United, where he has mostly played in a back four in a team that often has to play against the opposition. When United have played in a back five, it doesn’t come from weeks of training. Rather, it was used as a desperate method to fix a leaky tusk.
This season, Ajax haven’t used a back five at all. It’s not unthinkable for a top team to adopt such a system – it’s Thomas Tuchel’s preferred system at Chelsea.
But even Tuchel has grown impatient at times this season, as Chelsea have struggled to break up teams and attack with fluidity. Some defenders are just more adept at playing in a back five.
Thiago Silva, a far more accomplished centre-back than Maguire, has struggled tremendously this season when asked to play in a back four. A key part of the 40-year-old’s longevity is undoubtedly playing with two extra centre-backs who can minimize his flaws.
Similarly, Conor Coady and other Wolves defenders performed poorly when they moved to full-backs last season. Maguire might just be one of those players too.
The chant of a specialist defensive midfielder, a player who has been lacking at United in recent years, could protect him better. Nonetheless, it will be up to the former Leicester City man to prove to ten Hag that he is capable of playing in a high-risk, high-reward system.
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