Luke Shaw is a better centre-back than Harry Maguire! Left-back's quality in unfamiliar role is good news for Man Utd but bad news for struggling captain
Harry Maguire must have felt under pressure when Manchester United signed Raphael Varane in 2021 and then even more so when Lisandro Martinez arrived last year.
But injuries to United's two first-choice, World Cup-winning centre-backs have not returned Maguire to the frontline of Erik ten Hag's defence.
He faces a new challenge in Luke Shaw that, rather like Erik Lamela chasing him down at the Sanchez Pizjuan, he did not see coming.
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Shaw has been used at centre-back on a number of occasions this season, and while he is still most useful at left-back, he is more than capable at the heart of defence.
And on current form, he is a much better option than Maguire.
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Injuries and suspension lead Ten Hag to Shaw again
Although Shaw excelled when asked to play at centre-back shortly after the World Cup, his latest stint in the position came about by accident.
With Varane and Martinez out for the season and Maguire suspended for the FA Cup semi-final against Brighton, Ten Hag had little choice but to partner Shaw alongside Victor Lindelof.
The partnership worked well, with United managing to keep the normally free-scoring Brighton at bay for 120 minutes before prevailing on penalties.
Maguire then picked up an injury in training the day before the Tottenham game, meaning Shaw had to play there again.
Even though United threw away a two-goal lead to draw with Tottenham, Shaw was again outstanding.
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Shaw excels again in unfamiliar role
He anticipated well, defending calmly while also putting his body on the line. And he showed real leadership, stepping in to midfield to put out fires.
Shaw chased down Son Heung-min and cleanly robbed the ball off him and charged down Richarlison to halt a Tottenham counter without even conceding a foul.
His passing was excellent, with United benefitting from that rarest of commodities, a left-footed centre-back.
He also got in good attacking positions, sending in a fine cross on to the head of Casemiro late in the game which the Brazilian glanced just over the bar.
With Shaw in the side, United looked comfortable in possession and were able to play the ball out from the back a lot more smoothly than with Maguire, who badly struggled in his last two appearances, against Nottingham Forest and Sevilla.
As a left-back, Shaw is used to taking on opponents and being pressed, making him far more suited to the style of play United aspire to under Ten Hag than Maguire.
Climbing from League One to a World Cup semi-final
Amid the memes and derision from rival fans in stadiums and on social media, it is easy to forget that Maguire was one of the most coveted defenders in world football only five years ago.
Coming through Sheffield United's youth academy before breaking into the first team aged 18, he climbed his way through the English football pyramid, from League One to the Premier League.
He was even scouted by Man Utd in 2013 when David Moyes was manager, although the club neglected to sign him for only £4 million ($5m).
Maguire signed for Hull in 2014 and proved himself in the Premier League to earn a move to Leicester three years later.
He continued his rapid rise with the Foxes and impressed for England too, becoming one of the most-loved players of the Three Lions' run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup, scoring a header in the quarter-final victory over Sweden.
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United outbid City in record transfer for a defender
His value rocketed after the tournament and Jose Mourinho made a real push to sign him that same summer, but United would not meet Leicester's £60m ($75m) asking price.
The following season Manchester City declared their interest in signing Maguire to replace departing captain Vincent Kompany.
But the Red Devils outbid their neighbours and in August 2019 landed Maguire for £80m ($100m), exceeding the £75m ($94m) Liverpool paid Southampton for Virgil van Dijk in January 2018.
Four years on, Maguire remains the most expensive defender in the world.
But while the Van Dijk helped Liverpool take the final step in their steady rise under Jurgen Klopp, helping them to three Champions League finals and ending their 30-year wait for a league title, Maguire's best achievements have been leading United to two top-four finishes and the 2021 Europa League final, which he ended up missing through injury.
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From scapegoat to outcast
During last season, as United were humiliated by Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City and Watford, on their way to their lowest-ever points total in 30 years in the Premier League, Maguire became a scapegoat.
And it is telling that in United's best season during his time there, he has made just 15 starts in all competitions and only seven in the Premier League. Those included the successive losses to Brighton and Brentford at the start of the season.
He was also left out of the line-up for the Carabao Cup final against Newcastle, although Ten Hag did bring him on towards the end to allow him to lift the trophy as club captain.
Ten Hag praised Maguire for his performance in the 2-0 win over Everton at the start of April but his brief revival quickly unravelled.
Five days later United were leading Sevilla 2-0 when he came on the pitch to replace the injured Varane and the game ended 2-2, with the defender scoring a hapless own goal in added time.
He was then targeted by Nottingham Forest fans during United's 2-0 win at the City Ground and struggled during the game, nearly giving away a penalty for handball and looking haphazard in possession before growing into proceedings.
The next game against Sevilla was one of his worst performances in a United shirt. He was robbed in possession by Lamela, leading to Youssef En-Nesyri scoring the opening goal in a rampant 3-0 thrashing to send United packing from the Europa League.
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Could Villa offer him a way out?
With Varane, Martinez, Victor Lindelof and now even full-back Shaw performing better than Maguire this season, it is difficult to see how the United captain, who has always been a confidence player, recovers from his slump and reasserts himself in the team.
He still has two years left on his contract with the Red Devils, earning a reported £190,000 per week.
Those wages make him a hard sell for United, and if he wants to get first-team football elsewhere he will almost certainly have to accept a significant pay cut.
But one club which could offer him a way out is United's next opponents, Aston Villa.
Villa are in remarkable form, winning eight out of their last 10 matches while remaining unbeaten since mid-February.
Coach Unai Emery's style of play, meanwhile, would be more accommodating for Maguire than Ten Hag's United as the Spaniard is happy for his side to cede the ball to their opponents and play fast counterattacks rather than build from the back.
"A club like Aston Villa and Maguire would be a match made in heaven," said former Villa striker Stan Collymore last week.
"They’re big enough to match his ambition, they’ve got an experienced manager who could definitely get the best out of him and competition for Tyrone Mings would only be a positive thing. I would love to see him at Villa Park – I’d drive him from Manchester to the Midlands myself if I could."