The less he plays, the harder he is to ignore – a condition that affects only the highest-profile players, and this week never more so for Harry Maguire, the lost ship of English football now discernible out there in the fog and being called back in by a manager who has never lost faith.
The erstwhile Manchester United captain, not included in a starting line-up for his club since the Brentford catastrophe on Aug 13, is back, and most likely a starter for England in the Nations League against Italy. The £85 million 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 that and, for the time being at least, sees something that is worth saving. He gave every indication that Maguire would start in Milan.
“If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above him there would be a different consideration and in some positions there would be a different level of competition in that way,” Southgate said. Maguire was, Southgate said, “our most dominant aerial centre-back”. With John Stones suspended for his red card in the Hungary hammering at Molineux in June, the options are narrower. Yet with a team featuring three at the back, it looks as if Southgate will select Maguire ahead of Marc Guehi and also Fikayo Tomori, for whom San Siro is a home stadium.
“Him [Maguire] and John are incredible with the ball, really,” Southgate said, “the amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments we have played… because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game. It means there is huge more pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well and those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”
He went on to invoke the experience of his rugby union counterpart Eddie Jones and his decision to pick his “undercooked” Saracens stars despite reservations about them playing for the 2020-21 season in the second-tier Championship. Southgate had noted Jones’s quandary when reading his most recent book, having, in the past, been an observer at Jones’s training sessions.
“With the Saracens players, he [Jones] felt they were his best players and although they were undercooked, they were still going to be better than players that weren’t at the level,” Southgate said. “So, I don’t think there are many players that aren’t here now at the level yet to go in and play. Look, clearly, it’s not an ideal situation. You want your best players playing regularly so that they’re physically in a good place and mentally in a good place. But he [Maguire] is an important player for us. I think it’s important to back our best players.”
'We feel Harry is an important player'
Those Saracens players were, at least, getting match time, it was pointed out. Maguire has started just one game since Brentford, the Europa League defeat by Real Sociedad on Sept 8, and played just 10 minutes of Premier League football during that period.
“Well, they [Saracens internationals] weren’t playing at the level,” Southgate said. “Physically, rugby is different to football in that the level in the 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 be physically working every day with top players and they have played some European football as well.”
The determination to make decisions independent of club form, and to stay with stalwarts who have gone to two tournament semi-finals and one final, runs strong with Southgate. In Maguire’s defence, the one Nations League game in which he did not start last June was the last, that most damaging 4-0 defeat by Hungary for which he played the last five minutes as a substitute. Southgate suggested that he had been forced into compromises for those four games and without going into detail seemed more determined than ever to stand his ground.
“Whatever reputation I have I’m putting it on there,” he said, with a rueful smile and nod to the hostility he encountered in the second game at Molineux. “I think you always have to back your judgement and we feel he is an important player.”
There are other problems around England’s defence that go beyond even Maguire. For the first two Nations League games, against Hungary in Budapest and Germany in Munich, Southgate picked a three-man back line. With England underwhelming, he switched to a four for the Molineux games against Italy and Hungary and somehow it got worse. Now, with the prospect of England’s first international relegation in 150 years, albeit just the Nations League, he needs to find something he can trust.
Maguire survives. Perhaps the connection is that bit stronger with a manager who was himself a centre-back and also felt the most unforgiving kind of rage that the England team can unleash in the English public. Beyond these two games against Italy and then Germany on Monday at Wembley, there is still the ocean of the next two months of club football for Maguire to navigate to make the World Cup squad in November. It is a long way yet to go, but he has been given hope.