It’s hard not to feel just a little bit sorry for Harry Maguire.
He has faced scrutiny during his time at Manchester United that few others would ever have to deal with in any walk of life. After becoming the most expensive defender in the history of football following his £80 million move from Leicester in 2019, more pressure was then piled on him when he was made United captain just six months later.
You have to be pretty special not to fail on some level in those circumstances. Very few of United’s most expensive signings of all time have been an undeniable success at the club (the group of the six most expensive is made up by Paul Pogba, Antony, Jadon Sancho, Romelu Lukaku and Ángel Di María as well as Maguire).
Things initially went well for Maguire, and he became a key and consistent part of the team while also cementing his spot at the heart of England’s defence under Gareth Southgate. But his status as a more expensive centre-back than Virgil van Dijk and captain of the biggest club in England meant lots of people were simply waiting for him to fail. Any mistake was pounced upon by rival supporters. Eventually, United fans joined in.
After being ever-present in the Premier League in his first season at United and not making a single error leading to an opposition shot all season, Maguire then started to feel the weight of expectation. He made four mistakes leading to chances for the opposition in 2020-21, the second-most of all outfielders in the Premier League behind only Leeds’ Luke Ayling (five). He followed that up with three in 2021-22, which was the sixth-most of all outfielders.
It was too many mistakes, but the criticism of him still felt a bit much at times. He wasn’t really helped by his surroundings; a big, slow centre-back asked to play a high line in front of a goalkeeper in David de Gea who wasn’t the most comfortable coming off his line and behind a midfield decidedly lacking in a quality holding midfielder (sorry McFred). It was a recipe ripe for mix-ups and mistakes.
He was still a very good player for United and showed he is a more than competent defender. But as the team’s style of play changed under Erik ten Hag, the football looked increasingly less suited to Maguire.
He has previously played for teams who play in a lower block than he was asked to play at United, and it may be that that is exactly what he needs to revive his career. A move to West Ham would suit him for that reason; there would be less space behind him to exploit and Maguire can play to his strengths a little more.
Those strengths include, for a start, his ability in the air. In 2021-22 – his last season as a first-choice starter for United – he ranked fourth for aerial duels success rate among Premier League players to compete in at least 100 aerials, winning 72.8% of them, with Van Dijk one of the three ahead of Maguire. That season, he also made 100 clearances, 57 of which were headed, with both tallies the most of all United players. Playing in a team that sits back a little more could benefit him.
Maguire is also a threat at set-pieces, which are an important part of the game for David Moyes’ team. West Ham scored 10 goals from corners last season, the joint fifth most in the Premier League in 2022-23. The first touch from their corners was in the central part of the six-yard box 27% of the time, plus a further 18% in the central zone just outside the six-yard box (as shown in the below graphic). They targeted the space in the middle of the goal that those two aforementioned areas make up with a higher proportion of their corner kicks than any other side in the top flight (45%).
The aim was often to pack the box and make life as uncomfortable as possible for the opposition’s goalkeeper. In crowded spaces like that close to goal, having a player as proficient in the air as Maguire could be a huge help.
West Ham created chances from all set-pieces worth 15.3 expected goals in 2022-23, the fifth most in the Premier League, though they scored only 11 goals from those chances. Their set-piece xG made up 30% of all of their total xG across the season, which was the fourth-highest proportion of all teams in the top flight. Clearly, set-pieces are important to Moyes.
We have seen Maguire shine for England as a crucial part of their set-piece approach – most memorably at the 2018 World Cup, but at other tournaments since then, too – and presumably that will be part of the reason Moyes wants him at West Ham. And while he will add significantly to their threat at dead balls, he would also benefit himself from playing in a team where set-pieces are a bigger part of the game plan, with routines set up to get the most out of him. Just 14% of United’s xG for 2022-23 was made up of chances from set-pieces – the lowest of all 20 teams in the Premier League. They also scored the fewest set-piece goals in the league, with five.
The news on Monday that corner-and-free-kick specialist James Ward-Prowse has completed his move to West Ham will only make them even more dangerous at set-pieces. ‘Ward-Prowse to Maguire’ could become a relatively common combination over the coming years if Maguire were to move.
Although he has in the past been the subject of criticism for his ability on the ball, he is a good ball-carrying centre-back and ranked well throughout his time at United for progression through carries.
In 2021-22, he ranked first for United for total carries (426), progressive carries that moved play at least five metres upfield (236), and carries that were followed with a pass (370). When he has the opportunity to step out of defence with the ball to move the team up the pitch, he takes it. He also has the passing ability to play a progressive pass that will continue the move after he has moved forwards on the ball.
He made more forward passes (567) than any other United player in 2021-22, also ranking second for successful passes (1,350), completing his pass attempts with a decent success rate of 86.4%. Part of the reason that Maguire’s rate isn’t quite up there with the Premier League’s best (who push 90%) is that he is adventurous with his distribution. He ranked in the Premier League’s top 20 outfielders for successfully completed long balls, with 120, despite missing a big chunk of the season (he played 2,514 of 3,420 possible minutes – 73.5%). He also played 198 passes into the final third, which was second for United behind only Bruno Fernandes.
The above pass map shows the variety of passes he was making, and also that most of them were played over long distances. He has a good passing range and is adept with both feet, most comfortable as a left-sided centre-back despite being predominantly right-footed. It means opponents tend to try and force him outside when pressing, but he has a strong enough weak foot that he can cope better than most right-footed defenders would manage at left centre-back. He can also play on the right side of central defence, too, of course, or in the middle of a back three.
Some of the criticism aimed his way over the past few years has clouded perceptions of his ability. There is a top-quality defender in there and at 30 years of age, West Ham would be set for a good few years of him at his best if they are to sign him.
With the belief of the manager, a style of play that suits him and the relief of not having millions of United supporters waiting for his next mistake, there’s every reason to believe Maguire can revive his career. West Ham looks like it could be the perfect place for him.