Manchester United beat Chelsea 4-0 at Old Trafford on Super Sunday but while the forwards had their fun, it was the home side’s new defender who earned the man of the match award. Harry Maguire’s dream debut showed why he will be such a key man this season, writes Adam Bate.
Tammy Abraham has the ball at his feet on the edge of the Manchester United box and another opportunity for the equaliser that Chelsea are seeking appears imminent. But he is dispossessed by Harry Maguire. Within moments the ball is at the other end. Andreas Pereira crosses from the right and Anthony Martial bundles it into the net. Two nil to United.
Marcus Rashford’s opener from the penalty spot might have been enough to win the match. The third and fourth sealed it. But it was this second goal that may have pleased Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the most. Here was Maguire, the defender he had pushed hard to bring in, starting the move for a goal scored by Martial, the man he had entrusted with the No 9 shirt.
It was an emphatic result to mark the start of Solskjaer’s first full season in charge, even though United did not look convincing for much of the first hour of the match. Abraham had hit the post when the game was goalless and Emerson repeated the trick before the half was out. As Maguire himself pointed out afterwards, United were fortunate early on.
Maguire’s heatmap vs Chelsea
“We rode our luck a little bit in the first half,” he told Sky Sports. “We gave them too many chances and were a bit sloppy on the ball. We gave it away in dangerous areas and they had a few chances on the counter-attack where they maybe could have scored. In the second half, I felt we were a lot better, much more like ourselves and we controlled the game.”
Maguire admitted that nerves may have played their part in the uncertain start but nobody did more to alleviate them than their new centre-back. He made the most clearances and the most interceptions. Nobody made more blocks and nobody won more aerial duels either. The Manchester United supporters already have a new favourite. He was that good.
A roar went up when he booted the ball into the stands midway through the second half and that was followed by a similar cheer when he sent a booming header out of play soon after. Basic stuff but important stuff. The result is that United are already halfway towards the total number of clean sheets that they managed at home throughout the whole of last season.
Maguire knew all about that particular statistic too.
“I was reiterating on the pitch that we needed to concentrate even at three and four because we wanted that clean sheet,” he added. “We have really got to make this place a fortress and make it hard to come and score.”
That is much more likely with Maguire around.
“It might seem an old-fashioned principle but when your centre-halves win their headers it doesn’t half make a difference,” said Gary Neville. It spreads confidence too. Jose Mourinho, watching the game in the studio for Sky Sports, knows more than most what this United have been lacking and explained exactly why Maguire’s presence is so significant.
“It is very important for a team not just to have that tactical knowledge but the personality, that reading of the game, being alert all the time, that confidence to play,” said Mourinho.
“A team can be very dangerous in attack but if you feel that the defensive mistake is around the corner it takes your confidence away and you don’t play as well as you can. When you feel there is something that allows you to play, you are much more confident.”
Mourinho described Maguire as ‘like a rock’, while Solskjaer had his own words of praise for the £80m man. “He has done exactly what we signed him for,” he told Sky Sports. “He is a leader.”
Maguire himself is not getting too carried away though.
“I have only had three or four days with the lads so don’t get me wrong I am going to improve, I am going to get better and I am going to get fitter,” he added. “I missed a week’s worth of training last week so I am still trying to catch my breath but it felt good to play in a team with such attacking threat. Keep the back door shut and we have got a chance.”
With Maguire, Manchester United do have a chance. His perfect debut even came with an appropriate ending too. Well into stoppage time, Chelsea lofted one last cross into the United box and the final touch of the whole game belonged to Maguire. There he was again, heading the ball away from danger. Maguire is already making the difference.