Like Manchester United supporters, Harry Maguire unimpressed with Tranmere victory
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If I wasn’t streaming the FA Cup match from Prenton Park in high definition on a personal computer, I might have believed it was the 1970s or 80s. The pitch was that horrible. On a bright, sunny afternoon, alternate furrows of grass and mud greeted the eye at kickoff. As it turned out, the surface wasn’t the only element which made Tranmere Rovers 0-6 Manchester United a throwback match.
Minutes in, Tranmere centre-forward Morgan Ferrier shoulder-barged Phil Jones to the ground, as you do. When the next Duncan Edwards’ central nervous system rebooted and the United physio pulled him to his feet, the often abused defender’s red shirt and white shorts were skidmark brown from chest to testicles. It did not bode well for the visitors who were expected to provide a response following their comprehensively lacklustre defeat to Burnley at Old Trafford in midweek.
The patchy ground also threatened to disrespect Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s attempted revival of the old school United whose technical quality regularly dominated inferior opponents. But the Norwegian mixed new-age tactics with old-fashioned grit. Not only did Solskjaer start United in a back three, he harboured no intention to convert to a back five against a host club who, when not giving Watford more time to focus on Premier League survival, were fighting for their own League One lives.
That was evident in the decision to start Jones in the middle and Harry Maguire on the left side in central defence. While the choice failed to prevent the former from playing Tyson Fury to yet another opponent’s Deontay Wilder [Ferrier joining Sheffield United’s Lys Mousset among notables to send United’s number four to the canvas this season], it did free Maguire up to push United forward.
The new Red Devils captain did so, seemingly spending more first-half time in the Tranmere end than his own. He probed the Rovers shape for openings, pinging passes to Luke Shaw running down the touchline and Jesse Lingard or Anthony Martial at the top of the box. When his markers backed off to shut down passing lanes, he advanced the ball himself, feinting outside before cutting in onto his right foot and unleashing a cannon-shot into the far upper 90 for his long-overdue first United goal.
His celebration emulated another United captain, one with a distinctly different personality. A la Eric Cantona, Maguire simply remained where he was, spreading his arms wide and turning slowly to bask in the entire ground’s admiration. He was probably expressing relief rather than bravado but fans should hope the goal breaks the chains that imprisoned his confidence. A leader wracked by doubt isn't much use.
If, as captain, he led by example, it was an encouraging sign when everyone followed. Diogo Dalot, Jesse Lingard and Anthony Martial contributed to the fusillade, releasing guided far-post missiles in similar fashion to Maguire. Lingard's strike was his first on British soil in more than a year. Even Phil Jones joined the act, heading a deep corner whence it came to dip under the bar. Recalling days of yore under the onlooking Sir Alex Ferguson, United refused to relent.
Tranmere keeper Scott Davies stood rooted to the spot on all five efforts, begging the question, did he know how to make a save? To be fair, the boyhood Manchester City fan did parry two or three in the second half even if he went the wrong way on Mason Greenwood’s penalty.
On the one hand, Tranmere were overmatched across the pitch, with only Ferrier and Corey Blackett-Taylor causing United problems. On the other, the Red Devils finally played up to their level rather than down to their opponents’. In a season when the club take most of their points from top-six rivals and regularly struggle against mid and lower-table sides, such a superior display was unexpected. Fans who protested following the defeat to Burnley received all they could ask from the side. This was a performance from past eras albeit entirely out of place in this one. Somehow, it felt staged. Everything came too easily.
BT Sport commentator Jermaine Jenas continually apologised for Tranmere’s short turn-around from a Thursday night fixture with Watford but why? That match also took place at Prenton Park. From United’s perspective, Rovers deserved no sympathy. Solskjaer’s squad endured trips to Nur-Sultan [5,900km] and Belgrade [2,400km] on Europa League Thursdays this season with Sunday matches to follow.
While Tranmere can offer no excuse for their performance, United cannot build too heavily on theirs. Quality matters. The Red Devils won’t find it so easy to break down Manchester City in the midweek. Trailing 3-1 entering the League Cup semifinal second leg, Solskjaer can’t possibly trust Phil Jones in the middle of a back three. At the other end, Ederson Moraes knows how to make a save.
Afterwards, the new United captain appeared to understand how little meaning the victory held. Standing in the Prenton Park mud with Jesse Lingard, answering an effusive BT reporter’s questions, Harry Maguire never cracked a smile. It would have taken a parliamentary inquiry to establish he had lips, let alone teeth.
Appearing entirely uncomfortable with gushing compliments for his goal and the team’s overall performance, he answered queries in low-key, staccato cliché, looking past the interviewer like he was late for a dental appointment. He tested her enthusiasm levels as grimly as City will test United, a black cap and tracksuit only amplifying his sinister expression. When she asked him to do the honours by presenting Lingard his Man of the Match award, Maguire quickly snatched the embossed red and black box and, serial killer expression intact, shoved it into Lingard’s midriff. Then, while the image-conscious forward signed autographs for excited children, 'Hellbent Harry' stalked off the pitch, fully aware real work waited to be done elsewhere. Cantona would have approved.