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Farewell Harry Maguire, the player who has covertly defined the Southgate era | Barney Ronay

He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to [Euro 2024] with [headphones] and pack,

But he did for them both with his [ultimately sensible] plan of attack.

Farewell then, chaps. You will both be missed across the next four weeks. Jack Grealish and Harry Maguire are clearly the most significant omissions from England’s final Euros squad, announced this week in a kind of Love Island drip-drip of leaks and abrupt wheelie-suitcase departures.

Of the two Maguire seems destined to chug beneath the radar over the next few days, despite his absence being by some distance the more significant. Which is a shame, because Maguire deserves a little more, deserves his own brief, fond Viking funeral. Put out more flowers. For Big H is gone. And with him a very distinct kind of thread has been cut.

There are good reasons for the lack of hand-wringing. For a start Maguire is simply not fit enough. Gareth Southgate has taken a sensible view on this, for which he should be commended, as he should for picking a squad that is notably sharp-elbowed and ambitious. What we have here is Gareth taking a breadknife to the unicorn inflatable, skimming the dartboard out of the hotel window. The age of playtime, feelings, club-culture vibes is clearly done.

Mainly, though, Maguire will remain the sub-story because he just isn’t Jack, who has swagger and ludicrous charm, who reeks of success (also cologne, Jägermeister shots and irresistible male handsomeness genes) and who is still a much more exciting footballer.

It is understandable this has an effect on perceptions. These players are essentially a projector screen, scribble pads for our dreams and hopes and feelings of how we want to look to the world. Such things can easily get the better of logic. On the radio this morning I heard a very experienced and sensible broadcaster exclaim: “If I was picking the team tomorrow, would I pick Grealish, Mainoo or Wharton?! Grealish every day!!”

Which is fine. But they don’t play in the same positions. This is like saying, if I’m hungry what would I choose to eat? A flavourless stick of durum wheat semolina flour? Or a Twix? Twix every time, amiright! Follow this line of reasoning and you’re going to end up watching Jeff Stelling force down a steaming plate of bolognese sauce stacked up, not on spaghetti, but on a pile of oozing, melting Twix bars, while at the next table France, Portugal and Spain enjoy a balanced meal of salad, protein and carbohydrate. Is that really what you want? Well is it?

In terms of iconography, feelings, meme-content, and also hard tactical shape, Harry Maguire has defined England’s Gareth Southgate era. Photograph: Eddie Keogh for FA/Shutterstock

Grealish has had an under-par season. He will surely be back soon. But Maguire, well, perhaps not. He will be 33 by the next World Cup. If he does come again it may or may not be in Southgate’s company. And in that regard alone this is an unusually poignant moment of severance. Harry Kane remains the key player of the Southgate-England identity. But it is Maguire, like it or not, who has defined that era more covertly, both in terms of iconography, feelings, meme-content and also hard tactical shape.

There is a paradox here. Maguire has not been one of England’s stronger players, and was only really under consideration now because there aren’t obvious elite experienced centre-backs lurking around the place with the same attributes. But his absence will still demand a profound adjustment this summer, something nobody really seems to have sifted into the mix just yet. Southgate and Maguire has been a rare kind of interdependence. Maguire made his debut in Southgate’s eighth game as permanent manager and has been present in all the best times since, most notably as a genuine tournament warrior. Of his 63 England caps, more than a quarter have been tournament games, the only defeats against France, Croatia and Belgium (two dead rubbers). Southgate’s England has basically been Maguire’s career. It gave him all his best days. It got him the move to Manchester United. Take England out and what has he been doing exactly?

And yes we know his weaknesses, the lack of mobility and the referred pain this can cause to the team. Maguire is often compared to a wardrobe, presumably some vast antique armoire, square and nobly woodwormed, but he’s more like a soggy three-seater sofa in his tendency to encourage deep sedentary possession, a place to flop, to zone out, to avoid thinking about difficult questions.

As he gets slower and stands deeper Maguire has caused problems for the midfield, opening up spaces and angles, leeching intensity further forward. At times too much midfield protection has been required in that area, Maguire presented to the world like some battle-worn grain steamer, holed above the water line, and now ringed with frigates as he gasps into the straits of Dover. All of this overlooks his strengths which, while prosaic, are also essential. Maguire is really good at close defending. He attacks the ball in the air, wins headers at set pieces. He is unafraid, clear of thought and always ready to play. He takes a brilliant shootout penalty, spanking the ball into the top corner like a man crashing a steel-capped boot through a defective stud wall, clanging the stanchion, and generally making everyone feel much better.

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Of Maguire’s 63 England caps, more than a quarter have been tournament games, the only defeats against France, Croatia and two dead rubbers against Belgium. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

Maguire has done all this, has played every tournament game in the best England team of the past 50 years, without ever having being a prodigy. He battled his way up through the EFL. He has obvious physical limits (footballers tend to look like panther-hipped rockstar aliens now; Maguire looks like a bloke). This is, for all the howls about excessive “loyalty”, the sense that people just get bored of seeing the same thing, a genuine success story; and an uplifting one, as it comes in the end from heart and character.

But there is also a wider significance in a Maguire-less Southgate, one that applies specifically to the next month of football. Maguire’s presence was never the oversight some have suggested, a case of simply forgetting to give someone else a go. It has instead been a conscious, if cautious, tactical choice.

Southgate is often accused of being a limited manager tactically. This may be true in some ways. But it is also to misunderstand the extent of what he is being asked to do. Southgate has to deal with two things. First, England delusion, post-colonial angst, the Arthurian myth dynamic as expressed through trying to win a football tournament while not really being good enough. It seems hard even now to accept that other nations also have talent.

This is one source of drag. Simultaneously Southgate, like all England managers, has been asked to make up a set of tactics. There is no indigenous Premier League style, as there is, say, a Dutch or Spanish or German style. What is the English way? Ferguson-era hard 4-4-2? Hit Les?

The Premier League is instead a petri dish for imported ideas, dominated right now by the Guardiola blueprint and versions of German-style pressing. But it remains the case that none of these are exemplified by or built around English players. England can’t play like Manchester City. They have too many holes. So Southgate has adapted, became pragmatic, made his England into a grooved defensive unit. Don’t concede. Keep the ball. Be good at set plays. These have been successful and legitimate tactics.

This is also why Maguire’s absence is now significant. Southgate has switched recently to one of the more recognisable Premier League styles, a Mourinho-ish 4-2-3-1, with trickery on the flanks, a strong centre-forward and full-backs who defend. Without Maguire the defence can play a higher line in this system, trusting its recovery speed. It is the right moment to try.

But this is also very new. Essentially we have no idea what a Maguire-free England really looks like under Southgate at a tournament, how free it can be, what lines of vulnerability may open up.

For now England’s enduring defensive key-slab deserves a little fond applause. Maguire leaves a hole but also room for growth. What is certain is the team will be profoundly different; and that England are missing a footballer who has, whatever his limits, been a defining presence in a very successful age.

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