In some respects, it was merely a confirmation of the inevitable; in another, an indication of the dramatic pace of change Erik ten Hag has brought to Manchester United. Harry Maguire had barely returned to pre-season training when he was informed he was being stripped of the captaincy.
Which, as he finished last season as the fifth-choice centre-back, behind not just Lisandro Martinez and Raphael Varane but also Victor Lindelof and left-back Luke Shaw, may simply feel logical. Especially as United are open to offers to Maguire, as Gareth Southgate has warned he needs to play to retain his England place and as there is little prospect of him upturning the pecking order at Old Trafford. It may have been another way of ushering him towards the exit.
Yet it completes a two-year unravelling: Maguire had been the endearing underdog, the former Sheffield United and Hull player who had become an unlikely national hero – ‘Slabhead’, the ungainly surprise star of a run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals, then the world’s most expensive central defender, then an anointed successor to Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Nemanja Vidic.
After the rapid rise came the precipitous fall from grace. Ten Hag often praised Maguire’s attitude; off the field, he was a fine ambassador last season. On the pitch, however, he lost his place after August’s 4-0 embarrassment at Brentford; just when it seemed Maguire may at least rehabilitate himself as a decent deputy, he was horribly culpable for United’s Europa League exit at Sevilla. As with David de Gea, another supposed talisman who was at fault then, this summer has brought an end to an era.
Maguire’s problems arguably date back to the summer of 2021; a few weeks earlier, he had reached a personal peak, named in the team of the tournament for Euro 2020, he had excelled for England. If Cristiano Ronaldo’s arrival altered the trajectory of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign at Old Trafford, so, too, for the Norwegian’s chosen captain. The sense was that Ronaldo saw himself as a more fitting skipper.
Maguire’s form fell off a cliff; he came to look more clumsy and cumbersome, haunted and hapless. He was sent off in Solskjaer’s final game, the thrashing at Watford; a few weeks earlier, he was terrible on his return to Leicester. He was not aided by the manager rushing him back when semi-fit; just as he had done when fast-tracking Maguire to the captaincy after only a few months at Old Trafford, Solskjaer seemed to overestimate him.
It may have made Keane’s criticism more vitriolic; certainly Maguire was not flattered by comparisons with predecessors. The status of the United captaincy and the size of the club and his £80m price tag configured a pressure that, ultimately, felt too much. There was, though, something sad about the way he became a figure of fun.
The United captaincy has felt something of a hospital pass in recent years. Maguire at least prospered for much of his first 18 months with the armband, if not the last two years. Before him, United’s official skipper tended to be injured, ageing or otherwise sidelined: Michael Carrick made just five appearances in 2017-18, Antonio Valencia just nine the following season and Ashley Young lost his place after inheriting the mantle from the Ecuadorian. Go back to 2016-17 and Wayne Rooney spent much of the second half of the campaign outside Jose Mourinho’s preferred side. Maguire’s powers waned, too, but at a younger age.
If United have spent large swathes of the last 16 seasons being led by vice-captains and senior professionals, now Maguire has had two terrible seasons: one in the team, one outside it. Now, too, a team who have looked rudderless at times, especially in the torrid 2021-22, seem to have several leaders: Bruno Fernandes, the de facto skipper for much of last season, Varane, who wore the armband against Leeds last week, the charismatic Martinez, the hugely experienced Casemiro.
The probability is that Fernandes will become Maguire’s full-time successor: an automatic choice who appears immune to injury and takes responsibility, he has a compelling case, despite his occasional petulance. It is apparent Ten Hag felt the situation with Maguire was unsustainable. He acted decisively. And in the process, he has pushed Solskjaer’s United further into the past.