During Manchester United’s Europa League quarter-final second leg tie against Granada on Thursday night Harry Maguire took up an unusual position: he was in the stands rather than on the pitch for only the fourth time this season.
He was only there because he was serving a one-match ban after picking up a yellow card in United’s 2-0 first leg victory over Granada the previous week.
Since arriving from Leicester City in the summer of 2019 Maguire has not missed a Premier League game, and played in 102 of United’s 112 games in all competitions.
This season Maguire has played every single minute of United’s Premier League campaign: an impressive total of 2,790.
The United captain is the one habit Solskjaer can’t kick; his security blanket he never wants to be without.
“Harry is a strong character and a very good player,” the United manager said earlier in the season. “He’s led from the back, he’s really been putting himself forward and always wants to play.”
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“He never wants a rest. He’s really improved throughout the season, and we can see more and more maturity and leadership from Harry in every game. He’s leading the dressing room. He’s very humble and hardworking.”
But the central defender still attracts a large army of critics who are desperate to highlight any mistake or misstep he might make.
Maguire’s two biggest problems are his transfer fee of £80 million, still a world record for a defender, which is likely to remain the case for some time as the world endures this pandemic, and the fact that he isn’t Virgil van Dijk.
Some United fans saw the impact Van Dijk made at Liverpool after signing for £75 million from Southampton in January 2018, and how he quickly helped transform them in to Champions League and Premier League winners.
When United paid even more for Maguire eighteen months later there was an expectation he would have a similar impact, and because that has not happened yet, a sense of discontent appears to linger around the player.
But this should not obscure the difference Maguire has made to United over the last two seasons.
In the season before Maguire arrived United conceded an average of 1.42 goals in each Premier League game, but in his first season this improved to 0.94 goals per game.
This has since increased to 1.09 goals per game this season, but if you discard the first three games when United were still feeling the effects of having virtually no pre-season, they have conceded 23 goals in their next 28 games, a record of just 0.82 goals per game.
With Maguire at the heart of their defence United have evolved from a team struggling to get inside the top four to a team who finished third last season and are on course to finish second this season.
Maguire has helped to achieve all of this despite David De Gea enduring his own struggles behind him, and a revolving door of holding midfielders in front of him.
It is tempting to think how much it would help Maguire if he had a commanding and confident goalkeeper backing him up, and a regular world-class holding midfielder offering him greater protection.
Maguire’s most regular partner Victor Lindelof also has his critics, but Solskjaer trusts the pair, and since United’s shock 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United in January they have largely been together to keep 11 clean sheets from their next 18 games.
Maguire’s important contribution to United’s attacks can also be overlooked, and it is not just the aerial threat he poses from corners and set-pieces.
He has become the first line of United’s attacks, with how he likes to play his incisive passes, and often joins the midfielders in feeding balls through to the forwards.
By the end of February he had been involved in the build-up to 11 goals for United this season, more than any other central defender in the Premier League.
Even Maguire’s biggest critics would miss him if he wasn’t there, but that almost never happens.