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England's Harry Maguire can grab Manchester United opportunity

Manchester United's Harry Maguire left for the World Cup after a poor start to the domestic season, but as before the centre-back found his best form in an England shirt. 

The question now is can the defender harness that momentum heading into 2023?

Picture the scene: Erik ten Hag names his Red Devils team for the visit of Nottingham Forest on December 27th. Harry Maguire is not listed among the starting XI, instead finding his place among the Dutch boss’ substitutes.

This is a scenario that has come to pass seven times already this season - Maguire has started just three games in the Premier League and has racked up only 280 minutes.

Only once has he featured from the first whistle since he was dropped in favour of Raphael Varane in the wake of the 4-0 defeat at Brentford in August.

But, after five starts for England in Qatar as the Three Lions went to the quarter-finals, Maguire’s absence from the United teamsheet on his return from the tournament would raise more eyebrows now than before.

And with the Premier League restart pending, United - who entered the World Cup break in fifth with a game in hand on Newcastle and Tottenham, directly above them by four and three points respectively - know that encounters with Forest, Wolves and Bournemouth represent three key opportunities to collect points before the Manchester derby on January 14th and a subsequent trip to leaders Arsenal.

The Red Devils are at 5/4 To Finish in Top 4 - shorter odds than the Magpies. An improvement in Maguire’s club performance could lend itself to a Champions League push and Ten Hag’s comments after England’s elimination hint that the United manager agrees.

Set-play threat much-needed for United

"It is clear he is good enough to play at the highest level," said Ten Hag of Maguire following England’s loss to France in the last eight.

"He has, for England, good games almost all the time."

And that claim rings true; the fact that Gareth Southgate, with other options to call on as a partner for John Stones, never wavered in his support of the Manchester United man, backs up Ten Hag’s comments on his inconsistent defender.

Going off Premier League showings, it could certainly have been argued that Eric Dier, Ben White and Conor Coady had done just as much to merit a starting place as Maguire, with versatile right-back Kyle Walker still potentially ahead of him in the pecking order despite recent injury-hit weeks.

But the Three Lions helmsman stuck with the man who served him well in the past and that punt paid off. After four goals from defence in qualifying, Maguire cut an assured shape at the back from the start, standing out in his performance against Iran.

He crashed a trademark header off the crossbar in the first half, showcasing the kind of threat he can bring for his club in a dead-ball situation - a welcome boost for United if he can manage it, as the Red Devils are yet to manage a single Premier League goal from a set-piece.

Only three of their 20 goals have come from headers; in contrast, Tottenham have ten, while Liverpool have six and Arsenal five.

Seven of Maguire’s 11 Premier League goals have been scored with his head and consistency on the level he has shown for England could give Ten Hag’s men a new attacking outlet, as well as more defensive security.

In Qatar, he shaved the post with a header against France, too, which will have come as little surprise to Didier Deschamps.

So concerned were the French by the resurgent defender’s threat that in the days leading up to the game, Paris-based media outlets had earmarked him as the main man to watch.

"When he is working hard, he gets that confidence," Ten Hag added. "We want him to bring it on the pitch for Manchester United. If he does that, he will be a great player for us."

Competition for places on another level

However, bringing his attacking A-game into his club matches is only possible if Maguire gets minutes on the pitch.

One thing that stood in the centre-half’s way at United before his successful Qatar jaunt still remains an obstacle: the Lisandro Martinez-Raphael Varane partnership.

Even when Varane, afflicted by a potentially World Cup-ruining hamstring tear, missed action through November, it was Victor Lindelof who was brought in to partner Ten Hag’s Argentinian signing at the back.

Martinez has overseen five clean sheets this season after appearing in every league game and his relationship with Ten Hag, his boss at Ajax before the pair moved to Manchester, leaves him unsurprisingly as the undisputed first pick at the back.

But the diminutive South American lacks a key weapon boasted by Maguire; for all the Butcher’s defensive prowess, the 175-centimetre defender brings next to no threat at the other end of the field.

Varane fares slightly better in the attacking third, with one goal to show from 32 appearances in the top-flight - a right-footed effort.

Neither has the attacking menace that an in-form Maguire brings and, crucially, with both men reaching the last four of the World Cup with their national teams, the door is certainly ajar for the more rested Englishman to lay claim to a place in Ten Hag’s starting unit.

The next few weeks will be key for United in keeping ground on the leading pack.

At a long 9/1 To Win Outright Without Manchester City and Liverpool, the Red Devils need to step things up a gear on a relatively kind run of games through Christmas and New Year.

Maguire, if he is able to harness his opportunity and carve out a run in the team, could be the change Ten Hag needs.

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