IAN LADYMAN: Harry Maguire is still a problem but he is not Gareth Southgate’s biggest one… the England manager’s headache is only getting worse with the World Cup looming ever closer
On the giant screen at half-time at dear old out of date San Siro, it said simply Grazie Milano. Thank You Milan. What for? For coming? For staying? For not complaining?
Either could have been appropriate. For an awfully long time, this was a really poor game of international football.
Up in the gods behind one goal, however, something else was happening while the players of England and Italy were having their half-time water. The England supporters were singing in support of Harry Maguire.
England lost 1-0 to Italy at the San Siro on Friday night in the Nations League
It has been a while since the England defender has heard something like that. His recent career trajectory with Manchester United has been such that he must have long since stopped reading the reviews.
With his country, it has generally been different. Maguire was not playing well for United ahead of last summer’s European Championship but he did so for Gareth Southgate during the tournament.
Currently, he is not playing any football at all for United. New manager Erik ten Hag has jettisoned him. But Southgate continues to be loyal — admitting the night before this game that he doesn’t have better options — and here in Milan he was rewarded at least in part.
Harry Maguire put in a solid display at the heart of England’s defence against Italy
Once again, England didn’t play well here and their World Cup chances continue to recede as winter draws near.
Five games without a win. Only one goal — a penalty — scored. It’s desperate stuff in the context of what has gone before under Southgate.
But England, with Maguire in the middle of a three-man defence, did concede just the one goal and it was a very good one that came pretty much from nowhere.
After an uncertain start, Maguire had an OK night. Certainly when Southgate assesses his team’s problems ahead of Monday’s game against Germany, the performance of his back three will not be anywhere near the top of a lengthening list.
The early stages of Maguire’s evening could have been taken directly from his United lowlights reel. It has been a lack of conviction and an inability to make good decisions that have characterised his football when he has been given an opportunity to play in the Premier League. At his best, Maguire defends with surety and relies on instinct as much as discipline. But he has not been that way for a while and here he was ponderous in the opening moments.
Gareth Southgate will have much bigger problems to think about ahead of the winter
Italy’s right back Giovanni Di Lorenzo was offside as he ran through in only the second minute to shoot low at Nick Pope. But Maguire did not know this as he struggled desperately in his opponent’s wake, unable even to get an illegal hold on the Italian’s shirt as he ran past him and away.
Minutes later Maguire was beaten in the air at the far post by Gianluca Scamacca and the header came back off the bar. Had that chance gone in, Maguire may not have recovered.
As it was, despite being outmuscled again by Scamacca just before the quarter hour, Maguire was afforded an opportunity by Italy to grow in to his first meaningful start since United fell to a 4-0 defeat at Brentford on the second weekend of the Premier League season.
Mancini’s Italy were poor. The home team started well but failed to maintain any kind of regular intensity. Italy’s world has fallen apart a little since becoming European champions 14 months ago and the most generous thing you could say about them here is they looked like a team in transition.
Harry Maguire will still be looking to force his way back into Erik ten Hag’s United side
Still, their failure to place any kind of regular pressure on Maguire was surprising. Perhaps they don’t watch TV in Italy but it was as though Mancini’s players were not aware of the struggles Maguire has recently endured.
It was as though they did not know they were playing a defender out of touch and out of proper game time. Corners and set pieces — of which there were many under the watch of an over fussy referee — were aimlessly directed by Italy. Theoretically, everything should have dropped on to Maguire’s head. But so little actually did that Maguire was able to grow into this game.
England will have to better than this in Qatar. They will have to be better against Germany if they are to have any chance of beating their first good side since edging Denmark in the semi-finals of the Euros. Broadly speaking, there is a rather uncomfortable feeling of time running out.
It could yet get worse, too. It was OK to play Maguire here given his United exile came recently.
But if Ten Hag refuses to change then can Southgate play him in a World Cup? It seems a stretch to think so. Even so, the Maguire conundrum is some way from England’s most pressing problem.