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Yalla Shoot :Harry Maguire resurgence extends ‘ridiculous’ Man United streak but the real test lies ahead

As he rose high, demonstrating the aerial power that has made him the most prolific centre-back in English national team history, Harry Maguire’s thunderous header capped a mini personal renaissance that lifted Manchester United off the floor of their Champions League group.

There have been times in the last two years when Maguire has felt luckless, but this time fortune favoured him: a status as the match-winner may have been snatched from his grasp when Scott McTominay conceded an injury-time penalty. Yet Andre Onana’s 97th-minute save preserved it.

And so the Stretford End ended up singing Maguire’s name. There were twin redemption songs, of the man United signed in the summer and the one they could have sold to West Ham. “Amazing,” Maguire said; he had been a stranger to adulation at Old Trafford. Last-choice centre-back last season, he may now have a run in the team for Erik ten Hag, the manager who stripped him of the captaincy.

As Maguire pointed out recently, the numbers support his case. The win percentage he branded “ridiculously high” now stands at 94.1 in his last 17 starts for United: 16 of them have brought victories. There are caveats and the one exception was a traumatic night for him in Seville as United crashed out of the Europa League. They lost on his first three starts for Ten Hag, too. Since then, his status as a back-up has meant he has been spared the tougher tests: he has faced Real Betis, Sevilla, West Ham and Aston Villa, but this season others started against Arsenal and Tottenham, Brighton and Bayern Munich. Arguably, he has not faced an elite team in Ten Hag’s reign.

Which, as the Manchester derby beckons on Sunday, may mean Maguire should savour his statistics while he still can. But a personal renaissance has revolved around meaningful contributions, not simply facts and figures. There was the headed assist for McTominay’s 97th-minute winner against Brentford, the man-of-the-match display on his return to Sheffield United and now a Champions League winner against FC Copenhagen. A common denominator may be that each qualifies as relatively limited opposition: United have scarcely dominated against any of them. But if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer miscast Maguire as talisman and captain of United, a willing soul and honest trier has prospered in three successive starts.

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A run in the side was facilitated first by the absence of Lisandro Martinez, Ten Hag’s chosen upgrade on Maguire, and then all of United’s left-backs, meaning Victor Lindelof was redeployed on the flank. Yet Lindelof began on the bench against Copenhagen, Maguire in the role Ten Hag has long been reluctant to grant him: as a left-sided centre-back.

The Dutchman has an innate preference for left-footers there. But he also wants centre-backs who operate higher up the pitch. Maguire was not a natural fit: belatedly, though, he is becoming Ten Hag’s type of defender. “I think so,” he said. “He’s playing much more proactive in possession, stepping in, passing vertical, defending also on the front foot, also stepping in, defending forward, very confident in the duels. I think he’s dominating in the right moment, putting the question, dominating his opponents. You see he gets rewarded – it’s a very good skill from him, his heading, and a very good finish.”

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It was a reward for more than just set-piece expertise. It was Maguire’s prize for obstinacy, for staying when there were reasons to go: that United were reluctant to pay him off may have influenced his decision but he maintained he could win his place back. Ten Hag, too, never forced him out, stripping him of the armband but insisting he remained a valuable squad player. The manager’s position has been nuanced, the defender’s defiant.

“This is maybe the most scrutinised club in the world and when you are not quite on your game it gets picked up, it gets analysed,” Maguire reflected. He had a shocking 2021-22 campaign, a bad start to last season. Neither escaped scrutiny. Since then, however, he reflected: “And I am really proud and pleased over the way I have acted over the last six to 12 months.”

For now, he has confounded expectations. Stiffer examinations may await, starting with Erling Haaland on Sunday. If he is still in the side, the last five weeks of the year bring Galatasaray, Newcastle, Chelsea, Bayern, Liverpool, West Ham and Villa. They will be the tests if he ranks as a top-class centre-back.

For now, though, Maguire is the emblem of this United, labouring to victory with goals from some of their lesser lights. Their last five strikes have come from either McTominay, Diogo Dalot or Maguire. And for the man who has been mocked and maligned, dropped and abused, it was a rare high of late for Maguire. And, whatever his win percentage, there have not been many occasions in the last two years when he was celebrated like this.

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