When we talk about Manchester United and their glory days, the first thing that comes to mind are the teams and how they were built from the back. At least from the time I started watching, Manchester United always had a solid centre-back partnership as the base of all their great squads.
Sir Alex Ferguson made sure, irrespective of the turnover of players in other positions, that United always had central defenders capable of withstanding any form of barrage towards the United goal.
Be it splashing a then-record fee to bring in Rio Ferdinand from fierce rivals Leeds United to a shrewd and ultimately more than a bargain signing in the form of Nemanja Vidic; or the likes of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, who were brought in as hungry and potentially great youngsters, Sir Alex always replenished the central defensive options.
But, there was always a mixture of youth and experience. Like in the case above, Smalling and Jones along with Jonny Evans were thought to be the young, energetic upcoming stars. But, the first-choice pairing was Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand – a pairing that oozed confidence, maturity and leadership.
Cut to the era since Sir Alex’s departure, David Moyes inherited the same players, albeit with Vidic and Ferdinand having an ageing presence. It was time for Smalling and Jones to step up, but sadly, injuries and lack of consistency meant they never did so and Moyes was ultimately sacked.
The ensuing managers tried their own hand at creating a new solid centre-back pairing. But, for lack of a better word, the signings for the said position were uninspiring. Marcos Rojo was more of a marauding defender than a proper centre-back and Daley Blind was not suited to the rigours of classic Premier League defending.
The first good piece of business at centre-back was to bring in Eric Bailly. The Ivorian was brilliant in his maiden season. But, injuries and lack of consistency thereafter have seen Bailly become a pale shadow of his domineering self in his maiden Manchester United campaign.
Victor Lindelof was the second and while he struggled to adapt to the new league and surroundings, he has grown into an influential character at the back. Jose Mourinho had the right idea, to bring in a player like Toby Alderweireld, who would add experience to the backline and aid Lindelof’s progress.
But, the board’s inability or perhaps, refusal to go for Alderweireld made sure Mourinho went into the season with a vulnerable defence that was exploited. What transpired was a poor campaign resulting in Mourinho’s untimely departure in the middle of the season. The football improved under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for the rest of the 2018-19 campaign.
But, United ended the season having conceded the most number of goals (54) in a single Premier League campaign in their history. It is here that the importance of bringing in Harry Maguire lies. Manchester United had an emerging star in Lindelof, who looked like the real deal in the 2018-19 campaign.
But, there was no ideal partnership at the back. Smalling and Jones are deep into their Manchester United career and are among the ‘veterans’ in the side now. Yet, the two looked unconvincing at the back. Lindelof also needed a cool head alongside him.
Maguire was brought in and the initial match showed how big a difference one quality centre-back can make. Again, we have seen this with Virgil van Dijk and Liverpool. The Reds were near-abouts to being a title challenging side. They had come close once under Brendan Rodgers. But, for lack of a better explanation, that was more due to the other-worldly form of Luis Suarez than anything else.
Virgil van Dijk’s arrival has transformed Liverpool from being also-rans to adding another Champions League to their cabinet, extending their lead as the most successful English side in Europe. But, Maguire’s influence could be miles more than what van Dijk offered to Liverpool.
Before van Dijk arrived, Liverpool had already become a solid side in other areas. For Manchester United, though, Maguire is perhaps, the first few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle at Manchester United. The midfield looked non-existent against Chelsea and the club is expected to struggle in the middle of the pitch for the 2019-20 campaign.
The attack looks experienced on paper in terms of matches played; but none of the options have a 20-goal season under their belt so far. So, Maguire’s arrival was imperative for Manchester United to even have a shot at having a decent season, let alone one that can be called a success by the lofty standards that the club have set for themselves over the years.
Maguire doesn’t only improve the defence, but it improves Solskjaer’s tactical style, minimises the lack of a quality midfield presence and provides Lindelof with the freedom to do his thing. Solskjaer’s Manchester United team isn’t a title challenging squad. But, it will get there, slowly.
Sir Alex always iterated that ‘defence wins you trophies‘. Jose Mourinho’s comment in the studio at Sky Sports makes all the more sense in this context. When asked about Maguire, he bluntly and with a laughing face said,“He arrived a year late.”
Remember, Mourinho’s 2018-19 squad had a brilliant midfield and a forward that had recorded consistent numbers in the top flight for seasons. All the Portuguese needed was a partner for Lindelof. Had Maguire come in during the summer of 2018, maybe we would have had a different Premier League title race to witness.
For now though, Manchester United fans will have to suffice with the fact that the foundation for a title win has been set.
For, with the arrival of Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Solskjaer has done the first thing Sir Alex would do if he had a squad like this; make sure the defence is air-tight and that, if Manchester United fail to score, they don’t concede either. Harry Maguire was impressive against Chelsea. But, in his own words after the game,“I am going to get better.”
Harry Maguire may not be worth the record fee for a defender that Manchester United paid, in general. But, to Manchester United, a centre-back like Maguire could be the difference between Champions League football and otherwise. Champions League football in itself brings in much more money for the club and with it, a better position in terms of sponsorship deals.
Overall, Manchester United have paid over-the-odds for Harry Maguire, without a doubt. But, it is more than just if you take into account that, without Maguire, United could have been headed into the abyss of mediocrity; and that alone justifies the money spent from the POV of the club. Maguire is no gamble but a necessity; one that United have ended up paying a premium for.