One of the enduring realities of football is that, just as one door appears to close, another has a habit of opening and this is where Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof now find themselves at Manchester United.
Stuck for much of the season and contemplating their future at Old Trafford, the central two halves have suddenly been thrust straight into the fire and their form over the next few weeks could very well be the difference between success and failure for the increasingly hard-fought side. Erik ten hag.
If losing key players like Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw to injury wasn’t setback enough for Ten Hag, the news that Lisandro Martinez will miss the rest of the season with a broken metatarsal and his defensive partner Raphael Varane is absent for at least three weeks is a major blow to the club’s top four ambitions and hopes of more silverware following their Carabao Cup win.
Martinez and Varane formed the bedrock of United’s resurgence under Ten Hag this season and the significance of their defeat is hard to overstate. How costly it now proves may depend largely on how successfully Maguire and Lindelof have filled a huge void.
Ten Hag chose his words carefully when discussing the pair, longtime United’s first-choice centre-pair, but it cannot be denied that they represent a serious downgrade on the Varane-Martinez axis. Both are uncomfortable playing on a high line, their lack of pace is a frequent problem, neither possesses the anticipation or flair of those they are being asked to replace (witness the number of awkward bookings Maguire musters to be late on the ball) and tend to be targeted by opponents.
They are able to carry the ball and can pick a pass, but it’s some of the other elements of their game that will now face the toughest scrutiny.
Lindelof’s shortcomings have tended to fly more under the radar given the scrutiny that Maguire, United’s official club captain and an £85m signing, attracts. But no one will hide, as the Ten Witches look to step up and earn their side crucial momentum, at least until Shaw is available again as a midfield option – a role he has impressed on several occasions this season. – and perhaps Varane returns.
Shaw has some hope of being involved against Nottingham Forest on Sunday, but United can’t afford to take any chances now with the left-back’s fitness and it remains to be seen whether Varane will be able to play any role in the final two weeks of the season.
There were certainly no guarantees on that on Friday night as United fans digested the latest injury news.
It remains to be seen how United, individually and collectively, handle the damage psychologically more than anything else. Character and courage are about to be tested. The stark reality is that goalkeeper David De Gea and the United full-backs have looked far less comfortable with Maguire and/or Lindelof in the center and the burden of Casemiro and the returning Christian Eriksen to provide control, balance and an outlet in midfield is greater than ever.
Also, opponents are likely to be emboldened. With three of Ten Hag’s top four picks currently sidelined, they’ll know United can be taken, while Rashford’s current absence up front has robbed them of their biggest goal threat and counter-attacking weapon. It’s also a reminder of the work to be done in this summer’s transfer market: the larger squad is nowhere near up to par for a club with such lofty ambitions.
Maguire has started just six of United’s 29 Premier League games this season; Lindelof only five. This tells you where they are. Maguire will also miss the FA Cup semi-final against Brighton at Wembley on Sunday week through suspension, so Ten Hag will be hoping to have Shaw suited to partner Lindelof for that one. There could be up to 15 more games to play, and the margin for error in almost all of them is minimal.
Ten Hag made it clear on Friday that he has no interest in apologies. Haven’t played much? So? United players need to be ready when the opportunity presents itself. If they have a problem with that, the manager said, they can ship. And this is the message here: What’s wrong with you, Maguire? What’s wrong with Lindelof?
Lindelof attracted interest from Italy. Maguire has been tentatively linked to old club Leicester among one or two others, although the prospect of someone paying his £190,000-a-week wages and coughing up a hefty transfer fee for a 30-year-old doesn’t make for a straight out or clean cut .
United must find a way to move at least one of their own this summer but, for now, opportunity is knocking. It’s time to stand up and be counted. United’s season could depend on it.