Exit Harry Maguire, shaking his head disconsolately, a triumphant return to the global stage suddenly jeopardised. Not so much by a reminder of his susceptibility on the turn and to the ball played in behind him, unwelcome as that was, but by the fragility of frame that used to get him through 60 games a season for club and country.
The look in his eyes may have told a tale: that he will not win his 50th cap against the United States, that his lack of first-team football for Manchester United came at a cost the first time he actually had to do any defending in Qatar. For an hour or so, it seemed the World Cup had redemptive powers for Maguire: it made him in 2018 and perhaps it would revive him four years later.
His was a performance with plenty for his admirers – and Gareth Southgate feels chairman of his fan club – to enjoy and a moment for his detractors to latch on to: as Ali Gholizadeh slid a pass in past him, the sharper Mehdi Taremi advanced into space to score.
Until then, Maguire had been the defender who had not been required to defend, courtesy of Iran’s self-defeating defensiveness. On a day when England scored six goals, he possessed a claim to be their most threatening attacker, certainly in the first half.
The England manager is not alone in valuing Maguire’s presence in the opposition box: indeed, another has taken it further. Officially the greatest goalscorer in footballing history and a cumbersome centre-back made for one of the more unlikely striking duos when Erik ten Hag paired Cristiano Ronaldo with Maguire for a few minutes against Real Sociedad. It displayed rather more desperation than inspiration.
Fast forward a few weeks and Southgate unleashed Maguire as England’s offensive weapon; not, admittedly, as an ersatz striker, but as a passer from the back who doubled up as a set-piece menace. England’s most contentious selection had the potential to be seen as Southgate’s folly: out of the Manchester United team, out of form, out of favour with the England public, who had booed him against Ivory Coast. The national treasure had become Slabhead the scapegoat. Then, briefly, he illustrated why he has been fundamental to Southgate’s success.
Some players add an extra dimension with their speed or skill. Perhaps Maguire does with his size, and if that can make him appear clumsy at times, it proved an asset in attack. He is the most prolific centre-back in England’s history and, without scoring, made his presence felt. A scorer in the 2018 World Cup and Euro 2020, Maguire has an assist in the 2022 tournament, heading Luke Shaw’s corner down for Bukayo Saka’s wonderfully redemptive first goal. He used his famous forehead to crash a header against Iran’s bar, two minutes before Jude Bellingham opened the scoring.
Iran’s inability to contain him was signalled from the start. Rouzbeh Cheshmi resorted to rugby-tackling Maguire as the first corner came in: in the age of VAR, it was surprising it wasn’t a penalty. Iran’s complaints that Maguire climbed over Cheshmi to set up the second goal need to be placed in the context of another decision that wasn’t given.
But Southgate’s fondness for Maguire does not stem simply from his status as a big lump in the box, or England’s reliance on, and excellence at, set-pieces. He deems the United captain his best ball-playing centre-back. England’s first goal of the tournament offered an illustration why. Iran’s formation was 5-4-1, sometimes verging on 5-5-0. They were an antidote to the era of pressing, camped deep behind the ball, displaying precious little intent.
Maguire’s line-breaking pass to Raheem Sterling took some of Carlos Queiroz’s players out of the game, enabling Luke Shaw to cross for Bellingham to head in. Last season, the breakdown of the Shaw-Maguire axis posed problems for three managers: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ralf Rangnick and, to a lesser extent, Southgate.
There is more concrete evidence to suggest Shaw is renascent, and not merely because of his role in three goals. After being displaced by Tyrell Malacia, he has regained his place in the United team. He was a scorer for England against Germany in September, whereas Maguire was culpable for two goals then and now looks fourth-choice centre-back at club level. Maguire has headed to Qatar with four Premier League appearances to his name, the workhorse who has gone underworked this season.
If some will be hurt in a winter World Cup due to fatigue, maybe Maguire’s lack of football was the problem. He had made one authoritative interception, made a surge out from the back to suggest his confidence was returning, but he seemed to await stiffer tests of his defending in other games. Then came the goal to highlight concerns about him and the injury to prompt questions if there will be further matches. If Iran seemed the ideal fixture to ease him into a World Cup, now there may be fears he will be out of it. And whereas many would welcome that, Southgate, Maguire’s greatest champion, has banked on him.