Is Manchester United captaincy Harry Maguire's blessing or curse?
Background image: Ian McAllister
Predictable as it was, handing Harry Maguire the Manchester United captaincy polarised reactions. While a certain section of fans were pleased, others weren’t happy due to his quiet persona and relative inexperience. It should still be remembered he wore the armband in most matches when Ashley Young began on the bench this term.
Unfortunately, Maguire's official debut came against a Liverpool side unbeaten in the Premier League for more than a year. And it came at Anfield. Losing an aerial battle with Virgil Van Dijk on the quarter-hour set the tone. Most failed to notice Joe Gomez pulling him back from making a proper challenge.
Regardless, the new captain was scapegoated while shouts for David De Gea grew louder. On the other hand, the Spaniard's error-prone nature this season probably prevented Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from burdening him with further responsibility.
Now, Maguire must prove he can thrive under pressure. Since losing the FA Youth Cup final to the Red Devils in 2011, he’s dreamed about this scenario. He may find it's far more than he imagined. It's his responsibility to rally a side in transition and imbue it with the United ethos. As an outsider only just arrived after spending time with two Premier League sides [Leicester and Hull], it's a daunting challenge.
It's the path he wanted to take, however. If he does lead the Red Devils back to winning ways, the history books won’t remember a bad night at Anfield. To erase that memory, he must prove he can shoulder the burden
Paul Pogba’s performance deteriorated when Solskjaer gave him the armband last season. De Gea didn’t look comfortable either. Ashley Young endured repeated hammer blows, scrutinised for the smallest mistake. In a sense, defeat to Liverpool was the ideal start. It's no problem leading when things are going well. How Maguire responds to personal adversity will set the example for the squad and prove his worth.
Not one to be easily fazed, his consistency at centre-back makes a difference for United this season. Those fixated on clean sheets ignore the fact only Liverpool, Leicester, Sheffield United and Crystal Palace concede fewer goals than the Red Devils in 2019/20. While shipping 27 in that span, they remain two below the total yielded by the squad last season in Jose Mourinho's 17 games, albeit Solkjaer's group are six games further into the campaign.
Maguire adapts to challenges quickly. He arrived at the club just before the season began but made himself available for the campaign's opening match. Last season, the squad disintegrated when the pressure increased. They responded to the home defeat to Paris Saint-Germain but had no answers for the top sides who came after.
This season hasn't been stellar but United are yet to suffer successive defeats either in the Premier League or across all competitions. That resiliency will be tested against Burnley this evening but it's evident Maguire's calm and composure make a difference. It's why he's been given the armband sooner than any previous captain at the club.
As the squad currently stands, the 26-year-old must be considered an elder statesman. Only De Gea, Phil Jones and Nemanja Matic are older. Maguire isn't the one to snarl and shout like Young before him. More likely to lead by example in the early doors, he'll be expected to develop a more authoritative manner like Van Dijk at Liverpool. The Dutchman enjoys the luxury of serving under Jordan Henderson, though, only taking responsibility for the rearguard. Maguire must find his way on his own, with fewer leaders to turn to at Old Trafford.
The former Leicester man spoke about demanding the very best from those around him. Can he? As former captain Gary Neville stated, the shit will come thick and fast. And from all quarters.