Sunday, September 25, 2022

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IAN LADYMAN: Harry Maguire put in a reasonable performance in England’s 1-0 defeat by Italy

On the giant screen at halftime in dear old San Siro, it was simply Grazie Milano. Thanks Milan. For what reason? For coming? To stay? Because you don’t complain?

Either could have been appropriate. That was a really bad game of international football for an awfully long time.

Up in the gods behind a goal, however, something else happened while the England and Italy players drank their half-time water. The England fans sang in support of Harry Maguire.

It’s been a while since the England defender heard anything like this. Such was his recent career at Manchester United that he must have stopped reading the reviews long ago.

With his country it was generally different. Maguire didn’t play well for United ahead of last summer’s European Championship, but he did for Gareth Southgate during the tournament.

He currently does not play football for United at all. The new manager Erik ten Hag deposed him. But Southgate remains loyal – he admitted the night before this game he doesn’t have better options – and here in Milan he was at least partially rewarded.

Once again England have not played well here and their World Cup chances continue to dwindle as winter approaches.

Five games without a win. Only one goal – a penalty – scored. It’s desperate stuff in the context of what happened previously under Southgate.

But England, with Maguire in the middle of a three-man defence, conceded just one goal and it was a very good one that came pretty much out of nowhere.

After an uncertain start, Maguire had a good night. If Southgate assesses his side’s struggles ahead of Monday’s game against Germany, his back three’s performance will certainly be nowhere near the top of a growing list.

The early stages of Maguire’s evening could have flown straight from his United Lowlights role. It was a lack of conviction and an inability to make good decisions that shaped his football when he was given the opportunity to play in the Premier League. Maguire defends with confidence when at his best, relying on instinct as much as discipline. But he hasn’t been like that for a while and this is where he was ponderous in the early moments.

Italy right-back Giovanni Di Lorenzo was caught offside when he ran through to find Nick Pope in just the second minute. But Maguire didn’t know that as he struggled desperately in his opponent’s wake and couldn’t even illegally grab the Italian’s shirt as he ran past him.

Minutes later, Maguire was beaten in midair at the far post by Gianluca Scamacca and the header came off the bar. Had that chance materialized, Maguire might not have recovered.

Despite being passed again by Scamacca just before the quarter-hour mark, Maguire was handed an opportunity by Italy to grow to his first significant start since United were defeated 4-0 at Brentford in the second weekend of the Premier League of the season.

Mancini’s Italy was poor. The home side started well but failed to maintain an even intensity. Italy’s world has crumbled a little since they became European champions 14 months ago and the most generous thing that can be said about them here is that they looked like a team in transition.

Still, her failure to put pressure on Maguire on a regular basis came as a surprise. Maybe they don’t watch TV in Italy but it was as if Mancini’s players were unaware of the struggles Maguire has been going through lately.

It was as if they didn’t know they were playing against a defender who was out of contact and out of time. Corners and set pieces – many of which were overseen by an overly fussy referee – were directed aimlessly by Italy. In theory, everything should have fallen on Maguire’s head. But it did so little that Maguire could grow into this game.

England need to do better in Qatar. They need to be better against Germany if they want any chance of beating their first good team since beating Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championship. Overall, there’s a pretty uncomfortable sense of time running out.

It could also get worse. Playing Maguire here was fine given his United exile came recently.

But if Ten Hag refuses to move, can Southgate play him at a World Cup? It seems far-fetched to think that way. Still, the Maguire conundrum is far from England’s most pressing problem.

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