The value of 'certainty'
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There’s big money being spent in the transfer window. It doesn’t feel like too long since £130m would get you half a team; now, Manchester United look set to spend it on Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire.
Both the £50m spent on a full-back who’s had one season as a starter, and the £80m on the centre-back who no-one is praising for his defending, have raised eyebrows. Wan-Bissaka, at least, is a youngster who is clearly pretty damn good at defending (as highlighted in the middle of a tweet thread about William Saliba on the shiny new Get Goalside! twitter account:)
No-one, as near to ‘literally’ no-one as you can get, is mentioning Harry Maguire’s defending when justifying his price. This says two things: 1) not much is known about players’ defensive qualities 2) football now values qualities other than defending in a central defender to such an extent that defending can be glossed over for Maguire.
Let’s tackle the second thing. What qualities other than actual defending are worth spending that much money on?
Maguire caught attention for his threat from set-pieces during the World Cup last summer, and various people at StatsBomb - the closest thing to a public set-piece evangelist sect that the game has - believe in his value there. Speaking for myself, I can’t say I know much about his value there other than he’s big and he has a big, solid head, but I trust their opinion.
The second is his on-ball ability. He dribbles a lot and progresses the ball. He’s good at it, partially in his bravery to actually do it, partly in his vision, partly in his execution. He’s slightly clumsy while doing it, but it’s probably as much as an aesthetic problem as a meaningful one.
The third factor in Maguire’s favour is the fact he’s ‘a known quantity’. While ‘he knows the league’ became such a cliche and empty buzzword phrase to justify signings or managerial appointments that it became roundly mocked among certain parts of twitter (of which I’m a part), there’s reason to it in certain circumstances. And United’s is one of them.
The Manchester United squad needs such a comprehensive rebuild that taking chances on potential - but not certain - stars is a far riskier proposition than it usually is.
One might be able to get a right-back of a similar quality to Wan-Bissaka for less than £50m, but they’re certainly not around in the Premier League and anyone else would have the question marks of adapting to a country, learning the language, learning the league and its players. Wan-Bissaka not only knows the pace and quirks of the league and its teams, but he knows how to play against many of the players he’s likely to come up against here. That matters. The margin of expected outcomes is smaller.
On the Maguire front, I do not believe that he’s a magnificent defender. He is, at worst, broadly competent. At best he is moderately good. His speed of turning is not great; he is reticent to engage with attackers (not necessarily a bad thing, but a notable stylistic quirk) and can be clumsy when doing so; he has had a surprising amount of communicative issues with Wes Morgan in his time at Leicester. He is not bad positionally. Substitute out player and team names and these could all be applied to Chris Smalling.
Don’t scoff - let’s not forget that Smalling had a period of time when he was truly lauded. Under Louis van Gaal in 2015/16, there was a stretch of a few months where his role and his form aligned and his reputation went through the roof.
I, however, responded with skepticism and wrote a piece on a blog that has since gone offline, but I’ll screenshot part of the conclusion for you as it’s interesting to look back on these things (there are bits of the whole piece I think are flawed, and the comment on Alderweireld here is a little unfair, but by and large it holds up).
I could well be wrong, but defensively I’m not sure if Maguire is really an upgrade on Smalling (although he’s a couple of years younger), and in that sense I can only repeat the last sentence of that extract from the Smalling post: If Manchester United are spending £80m on Maguire then it’s as much of an indictment on the current quality of their squad as it is praise of the defender.
But - assuming that United really do know that the Leicester City man has noticeable defensive holes - the familiarity with Maguire is valuable.
The club have gone through nearly a decade of failing to replace Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, putting faith first in the young English talent of Smalling and Phil Jones, and then in a series of ‘mid-range priced, flawed talent’ signings in Marcos Rojo, Eric Bailly, and Victor Lindelof.
Lindelof has, at least, performed well enough that he’s being linked with Barcelona (take that with as large a pinch of salt as you wish), but it took him nearly a whole season to find his feet. United simply can’t afford to have to buy yet another central defender in a year’s time.
Paris Saint-Germain’s seemingly impending purchase of Abdou Diallo for around £25-30m will be used as a juxtaposition to Maguire, and it’s a fair argument. But the point of this post is to make the counter-argument that, even if Diallo has a far higher ceiling than Maguire, United will not want to add to that list of Rojo, Bailly, Lindelof. They need a high basement level, even if that means lowering the ceiling on what they’re getting, so that they can cross some positions off their depth chart as ‘sorted’, for now, to turn their focus to others.
With Wan-Bissaka, they’re crossing off right-back. Even if he costs £50m and he isn’t great offensively, he should be good enough for the next few years. Luke Shaw’s 2018/19 means he’s probably nailed down left-back too.
Splurging £80m on Maguire is an attempt to nail down centre-back. That’s not to defend the spending, per se, but it helps explain and understand it. While his defensive quality might not be too different to what Smalling was offering, the stuff that Maguire brings to the table elsewhere is an upgrade. With a rotating cast of him, Lindelof, Smalling, and Bailly, that positional group should be fine enough for the time being. On their own, none of the four inspire incredible excitement, but on any given day you’ll probably have two who are fit and in some reasonable degree of form.
That just leaves central midfield, right wing, striker, and the post-De Gea era at goalkeeper.
That’s a lot. And that’s why United are spending £50m on Wan-Bissaka and £80m on Maguire.
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NB: If United don’t end up buying Maguire, my thoughts on him still stand. If City buy him, *shrugs*. Maguire would have less defending to do there, so the team would focus on getting the most out of his on-ball and set-piece ability, but *shrugs again*.