Harry Maguire.

Maguire key to United's defensive improvement

Amid all the fanfare surrounding Bruno Fernandes's arrival and and fabulous impact at Manchester United, the recent improvement made by the team's defence has gone relatively unnoticed.

How fitting, then, that the leader of our rearguard efforts, Harry Maguire, has been given a nod of approval via a nomination for the March Player-of-the-Month award.
 
United have been banging in the goals since Fernandes and Odion Ighalo joined the ranks, but the Reds have also been something close to flawless at the back, with nine clean sheets in our last 11 games and just two goals conceded. 
 
Maguire himself would no doubt be loath to take much individual credit for this increased solidity, but anyone who watched our games in March could see a man simply growing in stature with every passing minute.
 
Our schedule was sadly cut short due to the developing coronavirus pandemic, but the Yorkshireman was inspirational in the three matches he played in before the raft of postponements hit the club's fixture list.
The away game at Everton on 1 March was almost a perfect example of how United have progressed during the last couple of months. The first half was a delightful blizzard of confident, creative attacking play – bar an uncharacteristic David De Gea mistake – which perfectly encapsulated how Bruno has liberated the midfield and forward line with his creativity and wit.
 
But in the second half, the Toffees came roaring back, most notably with an almost ridiculous number of set-pieces. Everton had 13 corners, and Maguire headed away the overwhelming majority, relieving pressure on the goalkeeper and fellow members of the backline.
 
Incredibly, the 26-year-old made 15 clearances in the contest – a brave and colossal effort in what, at times, was a siege-like scenario.
 
As each corner floated into the box, the sight of Maguire whipping bodies out of the way to get his famously prominent noggin on the ball had Reds dewy-eyed, as their thoughts drifted to legendary, fearless foreheads of the past such as those owned by Nemanja Vidic and Steve Bruce.
Worryingly, Maguire missed the next match, away at Derby, after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer revealed the centre-back had rolled his ankle.
 
That news had fans squirming. With the Manchester derby just days away – and Maguire's absence for the 3-1 defeat to City in January still fresh in the mind – to be without our captain was a notion almost too unpleasant to consider.
 
To our relief, Maguire made the starting XI, and was superb in a tight, nerve-wracking 2-0 victory over Pep Guardiola's men. It also continued the former Leicester defender's record of having played every minute of the current Premier League season so far.
 
“He's a warrior and he wants to play,”
Solskjaer told journalists in January.
“If it's only a minor problem, he will put himself up to play.”
 
United fans do not underestimate the value of that willingness to go through the pain barrier, given the many defensive injuries that have plagued the squad in recent years.
Harry Maguire with his colleagues.
Maguire has become an important figure within United's somewhat inexperienced squad.
Against LASK, in the final match before the enforced break, Maguire was again excellent, stewarding the Reds calmly to another comfortable win. With the game being played behind closed doors, there was also an interesting chance for attending journalists to note the skipper's vocal leadership of the team, which could be clearly heard.
 
Several other players might have grabbed more headlines and stimulated more Twitter mentions from clickbait football accounts this month, but teams are not built on measurable stats alone.
 
In my opinion, Maguire's resilience against Everton, and his willingness to overcome injury and lead United in the Manchester derby were important moments for the team Solskjaer is building.

All 15 Maguire headers against EvertonVideo

If you want stats, a hatful of them can be chucked Maguire's way in praise of the big defender. No United player has completed more passes in the Premier League, or made more clearances than his 131 (80 of which are headed). He's won 136 aerial battles!
 
But how do you measure Maguire's nerveless composure on the ball? Or the calmness he brings to the backline?
 
What about that desire to take responsibility at set-pieces and with crosses? The example he sets to his team-mates by making himself available when knocks and niggles could afford him a breather?
 
These are the intangibles that glue teams together; that build confidence and steel collective resolve.

On that note, there's a fair argument to say that March 2020 was the month when Harry Maguire truly cemented himself as the leader of this Manchester United side. For that, he gets my vote for this edition of the club's Player-of-the-Month award.
 
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