Why Southgate will start Maguire in World Cup opener come what may

Published: Oct 17, 2022  |  

Freelance sports writer

Never controversial, always measured, Gareth Southgate’s temperament shifted. Speaking after England’s 3-0 friendly win over Côte d’Ivoire in March, the England manager shared his disgust at a minority of England fans who had booed Harry Maguire for his inclusion in the squad—before the game had even kicked off.

“I thought the reception was a joke, an absolute joke”, he fumed.

“What he’s done for us, the way he’s performed for England has been phenomenal. I don’t get it. We’re either all in this together or we’re not. When he’s played at the level he has and put in the performances for us that he has, it should be total commitment behind him. I don’t get that at all.”

This was a real insight into Southgate’s thinking. Maguire was enduring a torrid time at Manchester United, making regular errors leading to goals and becoming very much the scapegoat for Ralf Rangnick’s faltering side. But Southgate stuck by his player by selecting him, and stuck up for his player by calling out the booing.

Erik ten Hag has since become United manager, club captain Maguire has since been dropped from the starting XI, and results have since improved. So Maguire is in limbo. Many feel his World Cup spot is in jeopardy if he’s not playing regularly for his club—especially if Southgate means what he says when he regularly states that players must be playing weekly to be considered for England.

Worse still for Maguire, he was directly responsible for two goals in England’s colourful 3-3 draw with Germany at Wembley last month, conceding a penalty before being pinched of possession in midfield. The England manager didn’t need this.

Southgate has been in post for six years now, and the blueprint for how to get into his squads is still anything but clear. Southgate will maintain that no one is undroppable. After all, it’s healthy to insist. But Maguire—like Harry Kane, Declan Rice, Jordan Pickford and Raheem Sterling—is as close as they come.

Whether Southgate’s loyalty sometimes goes too far can be debated this way and that, but Southgate is fiercely trusting of his senior players who took England to the 2018 World Cup semi-final and the Euro 2020 final last summer. Maguire falls firmly into that category, so his club form between now and England’s World Cup opener against Iran on 21 November is largely irrelevant to whether Southgate will start him or not.

More than that, not even his dropping from the United first team will deter the England boss from starting Maguire in his backline. He simply has too much credit in the bank to lose his place two months before Qatar 2022. And with Kyle Walker’s injury to contend with, Maguire’s personal case for starting strengthens some more.

Since a qualifier against Bulgaria in October 2019, England have conceded just 12 goals in the 25 games Harry Maguire has started. That includes their Euro 2020 campaign when Maguire played the final five matches, only conceding once each against semi-finalists Denmark and conquerors Italy—and never from open play.

In England’s famous 2-0 win over Germany in the round of 16, the 29-year-old won all of his aerial duels, and as many as Denmark’s entire five-man backline throughout the 120 minutes of the semi-final.

Despite pummelling in a superb penalty in the shootout in the final, Maguire ended up on the losing side as Italy were crowned European champions. Partnering Leonardo Bonucci in the official UEFA team of the tournament: Maguire himself. Only two other English centre-backs have ever made it into an official team of the tournament before, and one of those was Bobby Moore. No defender has ever scored more England goals than Maguire.

The fact that Maguire has forged an excellent international career for himself is not in question. The pertinent question is whether Southgate can trust him to perform at those levels again.

And this depends as much upon Maguire’s competition as it does his résumé. But Maguire’s competition—or lack thereof—is another reason why Southgate will stick by him. John Stones is a cert, and at least two of Conor Coady, Eric Dier and Fikayo Tomori will join them in the final squad to Qatar. But even this far down the list, the limited options show why Maguire is still in the England reckoning even if he isn’t at United.

Brighton’s Lewis Dunk represented England once in November 2018 and has been tipped for a recall. But beyond that? It is slim pickings in this area of the pitch.

For England, Maguire has got used to having Stones and Kyle Walker alongside him in a back three, and Rice plus one another ahead of him. It’s the kind of defensive cover he’s simply never been able to count on at his club. Many of United’s defensive mistakes have been his, but many haven’t.

“I can’t get my head around what happened at Wembley tonight”, tweeted Jordan Henderson, after Maguire was booed in March.

“Harry Maguire has been a colossus for England. Without him, the progress made at the last two tournaments would not have been possible. To be booed at his home stadium, for no reason? What have we become? As someone who wants to win with England I feel fortunate to share a dressing room with him. We all feel the same!”

It’s clear where his England teammates stand. It’s clear where Southgate stands. England caps are not simply a reward for club form; England is a team in its own right. If the manager thinks it functions better with Harry Maguire than without, he will go to Qatar. And he will start. Fridge memes won’t change that.

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