Erik ten Hag has a major tactical decision to make with Manchester United captain Harry Maguire. Maguire signed for United for £80m from Leicester in 2019.
Then manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said that Maguire was a “great reader of the game and has a strong presence on the pitch.” It’s safe to say that things have not turned out that way.
Maguire has been a constant source of frustration among much of the fanbase for some woeful defensive displays. However, even Maguire’s fiercest critics recognise his ability to carry the ball from deep. This attribute would seem to make ideal for ten Hag.
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Ajax’s centre backs, Lisandro Martínez and Jurrien Timber are often tasked with receiving the ball and starting the Dutch champions’ build up play. However, Maguire’s tendency for horrific mistakes, combined with an occasional lack of agility, would hinder his effectiveness in this style of play.
Ten Hag’s Ajax play with intensity, pressing the opposition high up the pitch. Maguire has excelled in teams which do the opposite.
At Leicester and for England, he has performed fantastically in teams with a regular back five who rely on hitting opponents on the breaks. Playing in an organised 5-3-2/3-5-2 offers footballers like Maguire extra security.
Mistakes are more likely to be cleaned up by other defenders than in a back four. Furthermore, ball carriers know there will be greater support behind them if an attack breaks down.
It is no coincidence that Maguire’s worst performances have come at United, where he has predominately played in a back four within a team who often have to take the game to the opposition. When United have played in a back five, it has not come from weeks of coaching. Rather, it has been used as a desperate method to fix a leaky defence.
This season, Ajax have not used a back five at all. It is not unthinkable for a top team to adopt such a system – it’s Thomas Tuchel’s preferred system at Chelsea.
But even Tuchel has grown impatient at times this season, as Chelsea have struggled to break down teams and attacking with fluidity. Some defenders are just more suited to playing in a back five.
Thiago Silva, a far more accomplished centre back than Maguire, has struggled massively this season when asked to play in a back four. A key part to the 40-year-old’s longevity is undoubtedly playing with two extra centre backs who can minimise his faults.
Similarly, Conor Coady and other Wolves defenders performed badly when they switched to a back four last season. Maguire may well be one of these players too.
The singing of a specialist defensive midfielder, a player which United have lacked in recent years, could shield him better. Nevertheless, it will be up to the former Leicester City man to prove to ten Hag that he is able to play in a high risk, high reward system.
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