Harry Maguire and the Stresses of the Modern Footballer

Oct 15, 2020, 10:44 AM GMT+1
Harry Maguire
I know what you're thinking - 'What a rubbish Harry Potter sequel' | Pool/Getty Images

Harry Maguire was never supposed to be this famous. The captain of one of the biggest football clubs in the world, signed for a world record fee for a defender, hailed as Manchester United's equivalent of Virgil van Dijk.

By the time he was brought to Old Trafford aged 25, he had been relegated four times in his career already (even if he made fewer than five starts in two of those campaigns). A late bloomer, yes, but this was still a stretch. Not many players before or after him will be picked up by such a club for such a fee having played for Sheffield United, Wigan Athletic, Hull City and Leicester City.

Harry Maguire
Images that precede unfortunate events | Robin Jones/Getty Images

Not many players will get sent off for England against Denmark in the Nations League in front of zero spectators in the middle of a pandemic, either. That's one hell of a rise and fall arc, and it's still unfolding in front of our eyes.

Maguire is noticeably (like 'in your face' noticeably) slow and cumbersome, strolling around the pitch as quickly as a kid does in their nightmares, running in quicksand from a demon to wake them up. Father Time and Mother Nature didn't pass on spectacular genes in this department for a top level athlete. If an alien watched football for the first time and was asked to pick the best player, they might not know, but they'd assume Maguire was the worst.

But for his mobility faults, he is a surprisingly good passer and a monster in the air, two key ingredients of being a modern defender - aerial dominance is back in vogue, baby.

Let's not forget that Maguire had a successful first season at Old Trafford too, becoming the first Red Devil since 1995 to play every minute in a Premier League campaign - United conceded just 36 goals, three fewer than champions Liverpool.

harry maguire
One of Maguire's best moments for Man Utd | Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images

And until the restart, there wasn't too much criticism of Maguire's debut campaign for Man Utd. He'd assumed the role of captaincy relatively well considering the intense scrutiny of Ed Woodward and the pandemic.

So leads to the pressures of a modern modern defender.

News broke of Maguire's arrest in Mykonos as if the club account were live-tweeting it. Goal gifs for every pint sunk, a red card graphic for his long walk (drive) back to the dressing room (jail). Whatever actually happened in Greece, it's clearly been detrimental to his headspace and his form.

Two embarrassing defeats out of three to kick-start the new season later, United went into the international break in turmoil, their captain at fault for several of the six goals they had just shipped at home to Tottenham. Not great, Bob.

Maguire desperately needed some fresh life breathed into his year, and Gareth Southgate admitted his performance against Belgium on Sunday was the tonic he needed, but a red card against Denmark brought his world crashing down around him again. As his face likely hotted up and his heart sank, Maguire's only saving grace was there wasn't a Wembley crowd present to cast their eyes over him. 90,000 people judging you with distaste and disgust? No thanks.

The modern footballer has to brace themselves for critique from all angles, including from Twitter trolls, from United legends Patrice Evra and Roy Keane in the Sky Sports studio, from Rafael van der Vaart literally calling him 'sh**' on Dutch television. It's as relentless as it's ever been, and hopefully open discussions about mental health in the last few weeks aren't forgotten in football discourse - I literally do not give a flying f*** how much he earns.

For a guy who was just expected to be a jobber for ordinary football teams, Maguire's carved one hell of a career for himself, a real everyman hero, someone you could beat in a foot race, someone you couldn't drink under the table (he drinks the vodka and the jäger, as the wise old saying goes).

Could Maguire be the second or third best centre-back for Manchester United and England? Absolutely. But he shouldn't be the first. He needs a break that just isn't coming in this coronavirus-induced schedule - a rest that won't arrive without the spotlight still being on him.

Whatever happens and however he goes about the coming weeks, it's important for Maguire to find peace again. There's still a good footballer there, and it may not feel like it, but perhaps it's a blessing that it's so obvious what the problem with his form is.