Harry Maguire couldn’t resist being the backseat driver again at Old Trafford on Thursday night.
His unmistakable voice bellowed from the Sir Bobby Charlton stand, echoing around the enormous empty stadium. Maguire cajoled team-mates back into their positions and encouraged others to take on their Liverpool opposite number.
During Tuesday night’s loss to Leicester, Maguire was heard roaring instructions at 19-year-old debutant Anthony Elanga, urging him to take on his man with more confidence.
Harry Maguire could only shout his encouragement from the Old Trafford stands this week after suffering an ankle injury. Manchester United lost two matches in his absence
It was an evening to forget for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side as they lost 4-2 to Liverpool
United’s captain has come out of the week looking more influential, despite not even playing
It’s what comes naturally to a captain but how powerless Maguire must have felt, sat there wearing his protective moon boot with crutches propped up against his seat, as United’s weakened defence were cut to shreds by both Leicester and Liverpool.
Sometimes players prove their worth to a team by not playing and Maguire’s absence during a hectic three days has only served to underscore his importance to United.
It’s a charge often levelled at Maguire that he is not an £80million defender – as if he decided his own transfer fee – but he’s looked worth every penny this week.
As Gary Lineker tweeted during Thursday’s 4-2 Liverpool defeat: ‘Sometimes people don’t realise how good you are until you’re not playing. @HarryMaguire93 is a case in point. @ManUtd looking shambolic defensively, with an without the ball, in his absence.’
Lineker was among those making the point that United were much worse without Maguire
He was right, it was a shambles all night. After both Fred and Luke Shaw made catastrophic errors in the lead up to Roberto Firmino scoring Liverpool’s third goal, there was a 10-15 minute spell where it seemed United were incapable of crossing the halfway line.
Boxed in and panicked, passes went straight out of play or just back into the possession of their opponents. Diogo Jota should have settled the game when Eric Bailly drifted aimlessly forward and left him in acres of room.
And the manner of Liverpool’s fourth, finished off by Mohamed Salah after he was presented the freedom of Manchester with Victor Lindelof trailing miserably behind, would have had Maguire tempted to stamp his injured ankle on the floor in frustration.
Victor Lindelof struggled to contain Liverpool’s attackers as United were soundly beaten
Eric Bailly can’t stop Trent Alexander-Arnold during a poor performance in central defence
That’s not to say Maguire, far from the speediest defender, would have been able to catch Salah but you’d like to think his marshalling of the back line and ability to carry the ball out of defence would have made the overall outcome less embarrassing.
So it’s clear that to prevent United’s season from fizzling out, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer needs Maguire back in action as quickly as possible.
The squad rotation against Leicester, necessitated by a fixture list that had United playing four times in eight days, only confirmed the fact Solskjaer lacks the strength in depth to properly challenge Manchester City for the Premier League next season.
Central defence is one of four or five different areas where United must strengthen in the summer market. A world-class centre-back to partner Maguire is a pressing need.
Maguire injured his ankle in a challenge by Aston Villa’s Anwar El Ghazi last Sunday
It remains far from clear whether Maguire will be fit again for the Europa League final
Solskjaer is well aware that Maguire’s absence presents a major issue for United in the final
Bailly and Lindelof cost United a combined £60m but their performance against Liverpool again underlined that neither is quite up to the task.
United should finish their Premier League campaign with wins over Fulham and Wolves to secure second place but if Maguire is still absent for the Europa League final against Villarreal on May 26, they’ll be in trouble.
It is imperative that Solskjaer has tangible proof that United have made progress this season. Winning the Europa League, the first trophy of his tenure, is essential.
How Maguire compares to other Premier League defenders this season. Stats courtesy of Opta
United’s manager said it remained touch and go whether Maguire will make the game in Gdansk. He has played after pain-killing injections in the past and you know he’ll do everything to be on the pitch to try and lead United to a first trophy in four years.
The stats back up Maguire’s influence. There remain occasions when he is exposed by quicker forwards but he has learned to counter this with a reading of the game that is second to none.
He ranks third among Premier League defenders this season for interceptions, for example. And in terms of winning one-on-one duels, both on the floor and in the air, there are few better.
Maguire wins three-quarters of all aerial battles, making him the best in the Premier League this season, and he is the joint-third best when it comes to winning duels on the ground.
Among defenders, he ranks highly for successful passes out from the back, something Bailly and Lindelof seemed utterly incapable of doing on Thursday.
Maguire (left) celebrates with Mason Mount after scoring England’s winner against Poland
Gary Neville has suggested that Maguire would be a bigger loss to England than Harry Kane
Then there’s that great unquantifiable quality of leadership. The constant organising of the players around him, the direction and encouragement he offers. It just isn’t as effective from the stands.
It presents a similar dilemma for Gareth Southgate if Maguire isn’t fit again in time for next month’s European Championship.
The other day, Gary Neville described Maguire’s injury as Southgate’s ‘biggest problem’ and said he would be a bigger loss to England than talisman Harry Kane.
For a good time now, quite a few United fans would consider Neville’s remarks on Maguire’s importance as overblown. ‘Never an £80m player,’ was the consensus.
A very forgettable few days for United could easily have changed a few minds.