The end for Harry Maguire at Man Utd? £80m defender's Old Trafford career was doomed from the start
Manchester United are going places under Erik ten Hag. Sunday's 1-0 victory over Aston Villa gave the Red Devils a nine-point cushion over fifth-placed Liverpool in the race for the final Champions League spot, and they still have a game in hand on their rivals.
Ten Hag also brought the club's six-year trophy drought to an end with a 2-0 Carabao Cup final victory over Newcastle, and supporters are now looking forward to a blockbuster FA Cup final clash against noisy neighbours Manchester City.
Amid their resurgence, Harry Maguire has been little more than a spectator.
The 30-year-old has only started 15 games for United this season, including just seven in the Premier League. Indeed, he was only given a four-minute run out against Villa after Ten Hag opted to deploy Luke Shaw as a makeshift centre-back alongside Victor Lindelof once again.
Maguire is still United's club captain, but Bruno Fernandes now wears the armband 90 percent of the time, and a permanent change will surely be made in the summer.
It has also been reported that Ten Hag will sanction Maguire's departure, with the defender not figuring into his long-term plans at Old Trafford.
When Maguire initially joined United, he was considered among the best centre-halves in the country. Four years later, he has been reduced to a figure of ridicule and appears destined for a significant step down.
So how did we get to this point?
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The price tag
Maguire was on the radar of a number of top clubs in 2019, having matured into one of the Premier League's most consistent performers at Leicester City.
Pep Guardiola wanted him at Manchester City, but it was United that ultimately won the race for his signature by smashing the world transfer record for a defender.
Leicester managed to get £80 million ($100m) out of United for Maguire, who signed a six-year contract at Old Trafford, with the option of an extra year.
City didn't feel that lofty fee was a fair valuation, but the Red Devils took the gamble heading into Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's first full season in charge.
"Harry is one of the best centre-backs in the game today," the Norwegian said at his unveiling. "He is a great reader of the game and has a strong presence on the pitch, with the ability to remain calm under pressure."
Maguire backed up his manager's words with a solid first couple of months at the club, and outlined his aspirations in an interview with Inside United. "It's the long term, that's what the main thing is," he said. "In five or six years, judge me then - whether I have been a success at this club or not."
Pressed on how he deals with the expectations that come with his price tag, he added: "It doesn't bother me at all."
United supporters hoped that Maguire would be the same kind of transformative signing that Virgil van Dijk was for Liverpool a year earlier, but he hasn't come close to reaching that standard.
And despite what he says, that £80m fee has been a weight around Maguire's neck from day one.
Captaincy came too quick
Maguire's quick adaptation to life at Old Trafford led Solskjaer to make a drastic call just six months into his debut season.
With Ashley Young all set to seal a winter transfer to Inter, Maguire was given the honour of replacing him as United's official captain.
Granted, Solskjaer wasn't blessed with a squad full of leaders, but at the time it seemed as though David de Gea was the better choice due to his standing as the most experienced member of the dressing room.
Maguire jumped at the opportunity, despite not being ready for the extra responsibility that comes with the armband.
A captain needs to exude confidence to the rest of his team-mates and set an example for younger players to follow, but Maguire's performances in a United shirt have ranged from frustrating to downright embarrassing at times.
The Red Devils managed to finish second in the Premier League in 2020-21, but the wheels came off for Solskjaer in the first half of the following season as the flaws in Maguire's game were ruthlessly exposed.
The legendary former striker was sacked before the Christmas period, and his interim replacement Ralf Rangnick was unable to steady the ship as United finished with their worst-ever Premier League points total.
Maguire was regularly criticised for posting empty apologies on social media after bad results, and he was booed by angry supporters when turning out for England at international level.
The additions of players such as Fernandes and Raphael Varane have also shone an unflattering light on Maguire, who cannot match them for natural talent or strength of personality.
He has held onto the armband by a thread this term, but it's easy to wonder whether his time at United would have run far more smoothly had he never been entrusted with captaincy duties.
The Mykonos incident
The public's opinion of Maguire began to change in the summer of 2020, when he took an ill-fated family holiday to Greece.
His wife, dad, brother and sister were among those to accompany the United star to Mykonos for what should have been a relaxing break, but the trip ended up becoming a nightmare.
Maguire was arrested after a brawl outside a bar, and held in police custody for two nights. He was later found guilty in court of assaulting a police officer, resisting arrest and attempted bribery, which earned him a 21-month suspended sentence.
He has always denied any wrongdoing, claiming that the altercation occurred after two strangers injected his sister Daisy with an unknown substance. Maguire also alleges that he was beaten after being taken to the police station.
Maguire launched an appeal, which nullified his international conviction, and his case is set to be heard in a Greek court this coming June.
Police disputed his version of events, and one officer alleged in court that Maguire said to him following his arrest: "Please, let me go, I am very rich, I can pay, I am the leader of Manchester United."
As the press jumped on all the details surrounding the case, Maguire found himself under greater scrutiny than ever before, and his performances seemed to suffer after his eventual return to action for United.
“Some people will believe me, some people won’t,” he said when looking back on that summer in an interview with The Times in 2022. “But one thing I would say about Mykonos is that I have no regrets.
“I don’t worry about what the outcome is going to be. I don’t worry about anything to do with it because my conscience is so clear about what happened that night. The people who were there that night, there were nine of us, we all understand what went on and what happened.”
Maguire's conscience may be clear, but he no longer goes anywhere full of strangers without a security team.
“It’s not something I want, really," he added on those extra measures. "It’s probably made me a little more aware that I’m in the spotlight that much.”
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A study published by the Alan Turing Institute last August found that Maguire is the second most abused player online - after his former United team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo.
When the criticism was at its peak, Maguire was left fearing for his and his family's safety. In April 2022, he received a bomb threat to his home in Cheshire.
Maguire said those responsible had "crossed a line" with the level of hate aimed in his direction coming as a shock to his colleagues at Old Trafford.
"He's taken a lot of stick - probably more than I've ever seen before in football," Shaw told BBC Radio Five Live a few months later.
There is no place in football for that level of abuse, and to Maguire's huge credit, he hasn't let it keep him down. However, in the world of social media, high-profile players will always be targeted if they are failing to perform. Maguire certainly doesn't deserve to be subjected to such appalling vitriol, but he has left himself open to criticism.
He made 16 errors leading to goals last season, and has been similarly unreliable when called upon in 2022-23.
Maguire is slow in and out of possession, and prone to making poor decisions that put United under pressure time and time again. He was made a scapegoat for the club's struggles last term because he stood out like a sore thumb.
United legend Nemanja Vidic recently expressed his belief that Maguire has lost the respect of his team-mates as a result of his erratic nature.
"Maguire has a problem because he doesn’t perform well," he said on Rio Ferdinand's YouTube channel FIVE. "When you don’t perform well, it’s difficult to say to someone what to do. It’s difficult to gain that type of respect. In general, any captain has to be first, has to show an example. A captain has to play well and has to fight for the club, and then everybody else will do it."
The most recent example of Maguire's ineptitude came in United's dismal 3-0 loss to Sevilla in the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final.
Ten Hag had no choice but to start the England man due to a plethora of injuries at the back, but he will surely know by now that he cannot trust him in the biggest matches. After all, he was the one that identified Maguire's presence as one of United's biggest weaknesses upon his arrival at the club.
Reduced role under Ten Hag
Maguire spectacularly blew his audition for Ten Hag at the start of the season, after being named in the United line up alongside summer signing Lisandro Martinez for meetings with Brighton and Brentford.
United slumped to a home defeat against the Seagulls before being battered 4-0 at the Gtech Community Stadium, with Maguire making the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
He was dropped after the Brentford horror show, with Varane giving United an instant lift in a subsequent 2-1 home win against Liverpool.
Maguire has since had to be content with a place among the substitutes, and Fernandes has stepped up in his absence to lead the team as captain, with impressive results.
United are simply a better team when Maguire doesn't play. There are far fewer gaps for the opposition to exploit when he is not getting sucked out of position or giving away possession cheaply.
Ten Hag knows this, which is why even Shaw is getting in the team ahead of him with Varane and Martinez now set to miss the remainder of the campaign through injury.
It has been reported that the Red Devils will look to bolster their options at the back even further in the summer, with Napoli's Kim Min-jae, Monaco star Axel Disasi and another of Ten Hag's former Ajax players at Ajax, Jurrien Timber, all being linked with moves to Manchester.
Maguire still has a contract at Old Trafford until 2025, but there will be little point in him sticking around if competition for places increases.
Ten Hag might back him in front of the media, but he clearly does not consider him to be a vital player for United going forward.
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Maguire's application levels throughout his time at United cannot be faulted, but he doesn't appear to be very receptive to change.
He hasn't improved as a defender since his debut, and his misplaced faith in his own abilities certainly seems to be holding him back.
When quizzed on his perceived frailties back in November, Maguire gave a telling response. "Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the greatest players to play football and I have seen him criticised day in day out," he argued. "It is part of the game. I have great belief in myself. I go on the training pitch, work as hard as I can, give my all and it gives me the chance to perform at the best level."
It doesn't help that despite his struggles at United, Maguire remains one of the first names on the team sheet for England.
He was ever present during the Three Lions' run to the 2022 World Cup quarter-finals, and got the nod in Gareth Southgate's squad once again for the start of Euro 2024 qualifying, with the manager admitting he will continue to pick him regardless of his club situation.
Maguire's standing at international level seems to have given him a false sense of confidence.
"If you ask anyone in the dressing room how well I train, I train hard and competitively in everything I do, whether it is a small-sided game or possession, and I always do extra," he told The Athletic last month. "I’ve proven that because every time I’ve been given an opportunity for the club this year and for my country in the World Cup and qualifiers, I felt like I’ve been in a really good place and I’m performing really well."
A lack of regular minutes at United doesn't bother Maguire too much, because he has convinced himself he doesn't have any big improvements to make.
That arrogant streak will ultimately prevent him from turning his career at Old Trafford around. The best players work tirelessly on ironing out any deficiencies in their game in order to keep advancing.
Comparing himself to Ronaldo doesn't fly, because during the prime years of his career, no player worked harder to improve than the Portuguese striker.
Maguire doesn't have the mentality required to succeed at a club like United, who will have to accept a major loss on their investment when shipping him off in the summer.
But swallowing their pride is a better option than keeping a man who doesn't share the core values of a club and manager that demands the highest possible standards year in, year out.