World Cup 2018

Harry Maguire: England’s marvellous man-mountain

 • by Ryan Baldi
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Fate bestowed Harry Maguire with a head of granite, and he has put it to perfect use: breaking new ground with England at the 2018 World Cup.

By the end of the round of 16, after England had seen off Colombia via penalties, only Russia’s 6ft 5ins target man Artem Dzyuba (36) had won more aerial duels than Maguire.

Then, in England’s momentous 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden, booking the Three Lions a semi-final berth for the first time since 1990 – reaching the World Cup’s last four for only the third time ever – the Leicester City defender met ball with head another ten times.

One of which was for the game’s opening goal, exhibiting the kind of bravery and determination many consider a pre-requisite of top England centre-halves to power a thumping header home from an Ashley Young corner after half an hour.

England’s double against the Swedes took their tally for the tournament to 11, equalling their highest-ever World Cup haul, matching the heroes of 1966 with two games – be the last a final or a third-place play-off – yet to play. A remarkable feat for a team which has been characterised by organisation and work-rate, rather than creativity and flair.

Here, again, though, is where Maguire is key: England’s greatest attacking asset is the threat they pose from set pieces, with all but three of their strikes, directly or indirectly, coming from dead-ball situations, and Maguire’s reliable head is often the target.

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Gareth Southgate’s men have married brute force with invention from set plays at the World Cup, bewildering opponents by arranging four men in a line on the edge of the penalty area, who then scatter in hot pursuit of the arriving ball.

Harry Kane, Golden Boot race leader on six goals, usually slinks back towards the far post in anticipation of profitable second balls, but England’s other Harry takes a more direct approach, ploughing forth and crashing goalward.

Indeed, it was a combination of Maguire’s initial header and Kane’s astute goal-hanging which led to England’s last-gasp winner against Tunisia in their first game of the competition.

Maguire’s aerial domination has been a major contributing factor to England’s record of just four goals conceded in five games, always willing to put his body on the line without hesitation, dipping his head to where boots fly or wading through swinging elbows to meet high balls.

Maguire doesn’t only use his head for heading the ball, though: he has also displayed intelligence and understanding in his play, with and without possession.

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The sight of Maguire sauntering into midfield, exhibiting the kind of touch and change of direction that belies his burly frame, is one familiar to Leicester fans, and the 25-year-old is repeating the trick in Russia.

Of all the centre-backs at the World Cup, only team-mate John Stones (339) and Spain duo Gerard Piqué (353) and Sergio Ramos (508) had attempted more passes than Maguire (323) by the culmination of the round of 16.

And it was more of the same against Sweden, with Maguire confidently carrying the fight and the ball deep into Swedish territory, linking with attackers and creating two chances for team-mates.

In many ways, Maguire is an oxymoron of a footballer, a contradiction in terms: a battering ram made of feathers; a nightclub bouncer with the subtlety of a master pickpocket.

He is also, for one so obviously talented and self-confident on the pitch, a humble Yorkshireman to whom the glitz and bombast of modern football seems anathema; he’s not one for getting caught up unnecessarily in the growing hysteria that has surrounded – and perhaps even infiltrated, judging by some of the players’ own social media posts – England’s campaign in Russia.

Asked after the defeat of Sweden “is football coming home?” by the BBC’s Gabby Logan, picking up on the preferred meme of the hopeful-cum-expectant England faithful as Southgate’s men defy pre-tournament expectations, Maguire replied humbly, almost bashfully: “Hopefully. Fingers crossed.”

Ever grounded, unshakeably even-keeled, with Maguire leading the charge, England’s prospects are in good hands.

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