Harry Maguire blunders are a warning to England – right now he is not up to it | Barney Ronay
Farewell, then, to all that. We will meet again: at the Khalifa International Stadium, Doha in eight weeks’ time as a matter of fact. But this felt like something else, a final trip to Wembley, probably, surely, for Gareth Southgate six years into this odyssey.
And if this is to be a last note in that flip-book – so many memories: the fine results, the tepid midweek draws, the gakked-up post lockdown riot squad – there was at last a sense of familiar faces and old habits. Not to mention a shock of life too from this team that isn’t quite ready to leave him yet.
Plus, of course, in the middle of it, some warning signs too. The story here will be England’s revival from 2-0 down to 3-3 at the end. For Southgate, who talks always about the performance, the underlying metrics, it must also be the process that took England to two goals down, and a performance of terribly poignant, terribly muddled defending from Harry Maguire that looks like a warning too far.
It began on 50 minutes. Maguire made it happen too, counter-pressed himself, taking a loose ball and passing it straight to a footballer who can simply move his feet quicker, who seems to be moving through thinner air, to have a more successful relationship with the material plane.
Jamal Musiala had tortured Maguire at times in the opening Nations League fixture between these two teams. And, frankly, this is not what you want if you’re Harry, a dervish of feints and jinks and perfect balance, a way of swaying low to the ground like a moto GP rider taking a bend.
For Maguire, who is essentially mortal in this company, whose qualities do not extend to elite athletic agility and fast twitch muscles, this kind of moment is essentially a mismatch. Manfully, he moved to face the thing that was now entering his field of vision, standing front on, just looming there, like a wardrobe left at the turn in the stairs. And, of course, Musiala was too quick, switching the ball to his other side as Maguire swung his right foot gamely at the last reported sighting. It wasn’t a tackle, just a kick to the shin. Musiala went down. The Dutch referee somehow didn’t give a penalty, but the VAR did, almost instantly.
This doesn’t have to be a negative. There is information here, just as there was life in England’s response at the other end. That information is: Maguire is not fit or ready or basically able right now to perform at this level.
Loyalty is a good thing. But it can also lead you into some strange places. Ten minutes later Maguire was left whirling around like a suburban breakdancer, making a snow-angel in the turf as Musiala again swerved around him, like a man absent-mindedly avoiding a roadside puddle.
Southgate and Maguire. It is a strange kind of two-hander, a strange kind of interdependence. Maguire has been good to Southgate, has been a fixed point in the best times, a tournament warrior. Southgate has been even better for Maguire. All 47 caps have been Southgate caps. Southgate’s England basically got Maguire his move to Manchester United, gave him a stage, a persona, an aura, stood by him through the weirdness of Mykonos. Maguire had five caps, a year on from his move to Leicester from Hull, when he made his first appearance in Russia. By the end he was a piece of the nation’s World Cup flip-book, a meme, a fixture, a player elevated to a different trajectory. And England has been his career in many ways.
And shortly after Maguire was down again, losing the ball way up the pitch, collapsing like a crumbling Anglo Saxon wall, tackled by Kai Havertz, who then went up and scored at the other end.
Southgate had done the right thing with his selection here given the schedule, the rush, the weird anti-energy around these late days of Gareth. This is not the time to be “finding things out” about fringe players. This is the time to try to make this entity feel like a team. So John Stones came in for Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw for Bukayo Saka, and that was it, a team that spoke even in the names and numbers of the lack of development here.
Five of ten outfield starters were original Gareth stock, class of 2018. In part this is because there just isn’t the golden crop of super talent some English eyes, gulled by the unceasing brouhaha of the Premier League, are eager to see. And partly it is a failure of management, of flexibility, of tactical acuity, of the stuff that is, and has always been, Southgate’s weakest point.
There is still time to change that story. A hamstring injury to Stones adds another dimension. But it Southgate really does plan to be ruthless, as he has suggested, he must surely start with one of his closest generals.