Since his impressive World Cup displays for England, Harry Maguire has been linked with a move away from Leicester City, with Manchester United a possible destination.
Eric Bailly should be the first name on the teamsheet when Jose Mourinho selects his backline but for one reason or another the 24-year-old was left out of the team towards the end of last season.
Mourinho claimed that he wanted to give the other defenders a chance to impress their national teams’ managers so they would be invited on the plane to Russia. Ivory Coast didn’t reach the World Cup so Mourinho argued he had to give Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Marcos Rojo and Victor Lindelof as much playing time as possible.
Bailly had been injured several times during the season but had shown when he was dropped in to the action after weeks out he could still perform. He missed five games ahead of starting and playing the full game in United’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur, he played less than 10 minutes of football over a period of four months before starting in United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool, then featured in just two games in between, before starting in United’s 3-2 victory against Manchester City at the Etihad.
United fans didn’t worry much when he missed games towards the close of the season because it felt obvious that Mourinho would drop Bailly into the team for the FA Cup final against Chelsea. Instead, he stuck with Smalling and Jones to disastrous effect. Smalling largely coped well with the threat of Oliver Giroud, having kept Harry Kane in his back pocket in the semi-final, but Jones had his typical nightmare. Eden Hazard ran him ragged and forced the deciding penalty after Jones failed to keep up and made a sloppy challenge in the box.
It’s impossible to prove that the day would have gone differently had Mourinho opted for Bailly instead of Jones or Smalling, but it’s easy to believe United would have bad a better afternoon if their best defender had been on the pitch.
What it has highlighted, whether or not Mourinho intends to stick with Bailly in the season ahead, is that United are crying out for a world-class defender at the back. Persisting with a back four of players who were all at the club from the Sir Alex Ferguson era, which ended five years ago, is not going to lay the foundation of success.
That’s not to say that Smalling and Jones aren’t capable of putting in top performances, because they are. On their day, they can do a job against a whole host of top quality forwards, but when looking at their stock performance, how they play on a consistent basis, they’re way below the standards of a brilliant central defensive pairing. They were supposed to be the new Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, but years later they’re nowhere close to filling those big boots.
Jones turns 27 this season and has close to 200 games for the club under his belt, while Chris Smalling will turn 29 this season and has played almost 300 games. We should have already seen their peak, so if this is as good as it gets, it’s not good enough.
So, is Maguire the answer? He’s 25, so whatever inflated fee United were forced to pay, at least they’d have plenty of his best years in their shirt. His World Cup displays, where he was solid at the back, as well as contributing a goal and an assist, show he can perform under pressure.
The player himself has talked about his desire to play at the top. He would be helping United mount a title challenge next season, as well as playing in the Champions League.
“Every player wants to play at the highest level,” he said. “I’ve just come back from playing at a World Cup, where I really enjoyed the high pressure of the games. It was something that I really thrived off. Leicester have been unbelievable to me and I’m really happy there but I’m also an ambitious player and everyone wants to play at the top.”
However, if not for the World Cup, it’s unlikely that anyone would be linking him with a move to United. He’s only spent two years playing Premier League football, with one season at Hull and then Leicester City. He was worth just £12 million last summer, indicating his rise in popularity has been very steep and he’s done nothing to indicate he can maintain that level.
That said, he did go on to be named the fans’ and players’ player of the year for Leicester, although being the best player at a club that finished ninth in the league isn’t typically the criteria for a player United would fork out a fortune for.
One huge plus, though, is how little time he spends on the treatment table. United’s defenders seem cursed with injuries, so to have a defender who could play every week would be a blessing.
Toby Alderweireld, another player United have been linked with, is clearly the superior defender but he is another who tends to suffer at least one big injury a season. Last season he missed four months with a hamstring injury and the season before it was two months with a knee injury.
Yet it was only a couple of years ago that United were linked with Sergio Ramos, one of the best in the world for his position. Hindsight probably indicates that transfer link was purely for the purposes of Ramos boosting his contract with Real Madrid, but that is the standard United should be striving for.
Still, if it was a choice between a £50 million Maguire and no new defender, many United fans may begrudgingly welcome the transfer.
Smalling didn’t make the World Cup squad, Jones barely got a look in and when he did play in the dead rubber against Belgium he was made to look foolish by Hazard again.
What United currently have at the back is not good enough so if Maguire could replicate his World Cup form he would be a better option than Smalling or Jones, and therefore a better hope for helping the club compete for the title.