Until recently, England were lacking an elite level central defender ahead of this summer’s European Championships. While Gareth Southgate had numerous world class options in attack and through the midfield, this wasn’t the case at the back. The resurgence of John Stones has changed things for England, though.
Last summer, Stones looked as good as finished at Manchester City. Pep Guardiola even cast doubt on the defender’s future at the Etihad Stadium, commenting: “I am honest with them and the moment I will feel – not with John but any player – if we have to change we are going to tell them.”
Since then, though, Stones has flourished, fulfilling the potential he demonstrated earlier in his career. Despite being frozen out by Southgate for much of the last two years, 26-year-old Stones will almost certainly be a first team figure for England at the Euros. At this moment in time, he is one of the finest central defenders in the game.
At the 2018 World Cup, it seemed Harry Maguire was the English centre back most likely to reach such a level. The Leicester City player was one of the standout performers as the Three Lions made an unexpected run to the semi finals of the tournament, becoming something of a cult hero for supporters. Maguire didn’t look out of place at the top of the international game. In fact, the World Cup gave him a platform to prove what he could do.
Manchester United paid a record transfer fee for a defender (£80 million) to sign Maguire from Leicester City in the summer of 2019. While this was considered an inflated fee at the time, it also reflected how Maguire was viewed as one of the best in his position in the Premier League. The 27-year-old was signed to be the leader at the back United desperately needed.
Maguire has now been a first team figure for the Old Trafford club for nearly two seasons and, while he has turned in a number of strong performances and is still considered one of the best defenders Manchester United have, he has not lived up to his £80 million price tag. He has not been the solution many, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, believed he would be.
This season has seen Maguire face much scrutiny, just as Stones did last term, for United and England. United have made progress and are on course to finish as the best of the rest in the Premier League behind runaway leaders Manchester City, but this progress hasn’t extended to performances at the back. Indeed, Manchester United’s biggest weakness has been in defence.
Victor Lindelof and Maguire bring the worst out in each other. As players, their flaws are similar. Maguire looks more comfortable with Eric Bailly alongside him, but Lindelof has been largely favoured over the Ivorian. There is a sense that the right partner could bring the best, rather than the worst, out of the former Hull City man. Gareth Southgate will certainly be hoping that at the Euros, John Stones proves to be the partner that Maguire needs.
There is still a need for Maguire to take responsibility for his own performances, though, and in this regard the 27-year-old must take encouragement from how Stones has managed to turn around his Manchester City, and potentially England, career. If Stones can do it, there’s no reason Maguire can’t do similar for Manchester United.
Maguire will face arguably his toughest test of the season at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. A derby win would move Manchester City closer to a third Premier League title in four years and Stones has been central to the 21-game winning streak that has taken them to this point. There isn’t too much between Maguire and Stones in terms of technical ability, but the former must discover what the latter has found.