Across a dozen games as Manchester United’s interim manager Ralf Rangnick has shown he isn’t going to shirk the big decisions.
Harry Maguire, Bruno Fernandes, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo have all been dropped under his United watch. Ronaldo was left out at Turf Moor on Tuesday night in what Rangnick said was a decision based on the style of game expected, but his decisions by him to ax Fernandes and Sancho have resulted in both players producing improved performances.
While Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did hand Ronaldo a rest against Everton earlier in the season and didn’t always pick Sancho, it was hard to imagine him ever benching Maguire or Fernandes in the Premier League.
But this is a different era and Rangnick is prepared to make difficult calls, perhaps emboldened by his status as interim manager and the realization that at the moment any extension to that role is looking slimmer by the week.
On recent evidence, he might have to revisit one of those significant decisions he has already made. If Fernandes and Sancho have raised their levels since finding themselves on the bench, the same can’t be said of Maguire.
The United captain missed the defeat to Wolves and FA Cup win against Aston Villa at the start of January through injury, but on his return he was only a substitute in the league clashes with Villa and at Brentford, with Victor Lindelof keeping his place alongside Raphael Varane.
Before the game at Villa Park Rangnick said Maguire “doesn’t have any problems anymore” but that he “decided to keep the two centre-backs who played in the cup game in the team”. It looked a pretty clear-cut selection call but when it was repeated at Brentford a few days later there was an attempt to portray it as the captain being eased back in and extolling his leadership qualities from the bench.
United were impressive in the second half at the Brentford Community Stadium but Maguire was presented with a route back into the team when Victor Lindelof missed the fixture with West Ham, having his house broken into while he was in west London with United.
Would Maguire have returned to the side had Lindelof been available, or could he have been a substitute for the third game in a row? That’s something we might never know now.
In fairness to the 28-year-old, United kept a clean sheet against the Hammers, although they had very little defending to do. He was tested more in the final half-hour against Middlesbrough and was then given a tough second half by Burnley on Tuesday night.
Facing 6ft 6ins striker Wout Weghorst, Maguire probably expected an aerial examination, but he was beaten on the ground for the equaliser. Weghorst dragged him out of position and then turned him far too easily to open up the chance.
Maguire was then booked for bringing down Jay Rodriguez having misjudged the flight of the ball towards his goal. This wasn’t a convincing performance.
On BT Sport’s coverage of the game Rio Ferdinand raised the possibility of a hangover from the Euros, “physically and mentally”, but the final was seven months ago now.
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It’s worth remembering that Maguire looked an outstanding center back in that tournament, but he’s struggling to find the same consistency for United. He was appointed captain by Solskjaer after just six months after joining, having never played for a club even approaching the stature of United before. He’s been learning on that role while also carrying the price tag of the world’s most expensive defender.
Ed Woodward eventually accepted Leicester City’s demands for Maguire in 2019, paying £80million to secure his signature and committing to the transfer fee in one installation. It was an astonishing deal for the Foxes.
It’s added to the pressure on Maguire’s shoulders, however, and having the captaincy thrust on him has added to that. He might not be an £80m defender but he’s better than he’s looked for United this season.
Rangnick has already made it clear he won’t be taking the armband off Maguire this season, but as he continues to struggle to recapture his form since last summer, he might need to consider dropping him again. Lindelof is available once more and was on the bench at Turf Moor. He could give Rangnick a huge decision to make this weekend.