Of all the issues facing England before they open their World Cup campaign by facing Iran on Monday afternoon, nothing feels more pressing than the question of whether Gareth Southgate will end up regretting his decision to stick by Harry Maguire.
The potential for everything to go wrong because of a stumble from a centre-back fortunate even to be in the squad is obvious. This, more than anything, is the call that has to come off for Southgate. This a manager derided for his caution opening himself up to derision by playing with fire, albeit with an act of recklessness that feels pragmatic and limiting: a tactical choice that somehow manages to come across both as a risk and an example of the safety-first approach that threatens to hold England back.
The contradiction is striking. On the one hand we have Southgate risking it all on one faltering defender; on the other it is possible to view the Maguiredependencia as the conservative move. It is a show of strength from a manager refusing to bow to public consensus and an admission of weakness for England, who would no doubt find it easier to move on from Maguire if they had defenders queuing up to take his place.
Either way, Southgate is aware of the likely reaction if a Maguire error ends up costing his side. “Whatever reputation I have, I’m putting it on there,” England’s head coach said when asked about his trust in the Manchester United player in September. “You always have to back your judgment and we feel he is an important player.”
It is not a widely shared view. There will be grumbles if, as expected, Maguire starts against Iran. Southgate will be accused of favouritism and it is hard not to worry for Maguire, who must ensure that the sceptics do not affect his focus when he steps out at the Khalifa International Stadium.
The pressure will be intense. Comb through Southgate’s time in charge of England and it is impossible to find a bigger gamble than his loyalty to Maguire. He has made bold decisions – leaving Joe Hart and Jack Wilshere out of the squad for the 2018 World Cup, ending Wayne Rooney’s international career, making Jordan Pickford his No 1 – but those calls were rooted in ruthless logic. With Maguire, the impression is that Southgate has developed a blind spot.
How far does loyalty inspired by past performances go? Maguire’s crisis of confidence has gone on for a long time. He has started one Premier League game since August and appears to have no long-term future at United. They have improved as a defensive unit since dropping Maguire, who has made only nine appearances this season, and Erik ten Hag will not stop him leaving next summer.
Of course the difference for Ten Hag is that United’s centre-back options are not limited to a small pool of English players. Ultimately, while there have been complaints that Southgate has acted unfairly by picking Maguire on reputation rather than form, it is true that England do not have many alternatives.
As Southgate pointed out when he named his squad for Qatar, the young duo of Marc Guéhi and Fikayo Tomori are not quite ready yet. Tyrone Mings is out of the picture. If England play a back three there is no obvious replacement for Maguire as the left-sided centre-back. What would Southgate do if the 29-year-old gets injured before, say, a quarter-final against France? Move John Stones to the left, put Eric Dier in the middle and have Kyle Walker on the right? It would hardly be a tried and trusted set-up.
That is why England are still leaning on Maguire and hoping that he can recapture the form that earned him a place in the team of the tournament at Euro 2020. At his best he is a powerful, imposing defender. He is decent on the ball and is perfectly capable of flourishing in a compact, deep defence, which is why he has been such a strong performer for Southgate’s England.
At his worst, though, Maguire is a lumbering, accident-prone presence. He is not quick, so it is hard for England to push up the pitch and play a high line. He is fallible in one-on-one situations, so Southgate tends to shed an attacker and play a back three against top opposition. It is not ideal and, for all that Southgate has continued to publicly and privately support Maguire, there is no escaping the fact that the former Leicester defender was at fault for at least one goal when England drew 3-3 with Germany in September.
The memory of Maguire losing possession, fouling Jamal Musiala and giving away the penalty from which Ilkay Gündogan put Germany ahead lingers. It will remain present against Iran, regardless of whether Maguire plays with Stones in a back four or, with Walker injured, Dier comes into a three. But Southgate has not been swayed. He will back Maguire to shine against Iran, who have dangerous forwards, and to handle the speed of England’s other opponents in Group B, Wales and the USA.
The risks are plain. Southgate knows the first hint of defensive vulnerability will leave him exposed. He is gambling everything on Maguire. Will it be worth the hassle?