Season one of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s three year project at Manchester United was all about putting foundations in place, to stabilise the uneasy ship that had been rocking since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
The first step in re-building the squad and laying down a platform to succeed on, was to solve the team’s defensive misshapes at the back. Solskjaer invested heavily in his backline last summer, spending £130m to find a starting right-back and centre-back, through the arrivals of Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.
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Both players have succeeded in their debut seasons for the club, with the latter being granted the captain’s armband. Having arrived for £80m, Maguire’s performances have been watched closely under a magnifying glass from pending critics, but they have had very little to shout about.
Building from the back
Having not missed a single minute in the Premier League this season, Maguire has already been a big hit for one reason – consistency.
Down the years, United have struggled to establish a reliable back-four, partly due to individual errors, but also injuries. The constant changing of the backline has hampered team selections and the ability to maintain a consistent shape to the side, as players have failed to strike relationships with their fellow teammates.
Now though, Solskjaer has settled on his defensive line. Maguire is to be partnered with Victor Lindelof, with each CB not only striking up a solid understanding between each other, but also their flanking full-backs (Maguire and Shaw/Williams, Lindelof and Wan-Bissaka).
With two midfielders also sitting in-front, in the 4-2-3-1 formation, United operate rather rigidly, cutting out space for opponent’s to run into. Even when their full-backs push forward, the midfield like to offer a blanket of security, to their frontrunners.
Maguire has been integral in maintaining this solid defensive shape, acting as the side’s vocal leadership figure. His experience in the league has benefited his teammates, as he is not afraid to dictate instructions to the midfield or wingers. Such a role may sound like the basics expected from a defender, but this is what United have been lacking since the days of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic.
The stats don’t lie
On paper, United have been successful in implementing a solid foundation at the back. In practice, this message translates through to the field. In fact, no Premier League team this season has kept more clean sheets than the Red Devils, across all competitions.
Domestically, United have only conceded three goals once in the division, whilst also keeping eight clean sheets – one more than last season, despite having played nine less games. Such an improvement has established Solskjaer’s side in being a tough team to beat, as they have become much more resilient in shutting opposition’s out.
No defender in United’s squad has averaged more clearances per game than Maguire, whilst Wan-Bissaka is the only figure to average more interceptions. His positional awareness inside the box has helped shore up the Red Devils defence, with his presence injecting a bit of solidity into the spine of the side.
Moving forward, Maguire will continue to be a key part of United’s backline, and no doubt play his part in any success that the club experiences, over the next few years.