It was a shame Harry Maguire's run of never missing a Premier League match for Manchester United had to end against his former club – even if Leicester City might have been pleased.
The United captain sat out Tuesday's 2-1 win for the Foxes at Old Trafford, a result that handed Manchester City the title and brought one of this season's few constants to an end.
Maguire had played in every minute of 71 consecutive league games for the Red Devils – and in his final five for Leicester before his transfer two years ago – until an unfortunate ankle injury saw him hobble off 78 minutes into his side's 3-1 win at Aston Villa last Sunday.
Granted, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer may well have rested him for Leicester's visit anyway due to the "impossible" task of playing three Premier League games in five days, but the decision, in the end, was taken out of his hands as United's lingering title hopes finally died.
City were almost certain to win the league anyway and United are guaranteed a top-four finish, so their remaining league matches with Liverpool, Fulham and Wolves are of comparatively little importance even if second place is not yet secured. More pertinent is the looming Europa League final on May 26, when Solskjaer will get his first shot at silverware as United manager, possibly with his captain watching from the sidelines.
Depending on their performance and results in these coming four games, Maguire may at least be given some of the credit he deserves, which was notably scarce in that 71-match run.
Firstly, the simple reality of playing that many consecutive matches without a minute's rest is more remarkable than many seem to realise.
Since the start of 2019-20, Maguire has played for 9,615 minutes in all competitions, more than any other player across Europe's top five leagues. The next on that list is Bayern Munich goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on 8,700 minutes, a difference that equates to more than 10 full matches.
Critics would argue praising a footballer for playing is no different to lauding any other professional – much less handsomely paid – for simply turning up for work, but starting 106 matches across two seasons, any two seasons, is commendable. Throw in the unprecedented disruption of a global pandemic, the lockdowns, the pause in training and matches, the restart, the brutal rescheduling and the persistent restrictions on personal travel, and what Maguire has managed points to an astonishing work ethic and dedication.
Few people truly believe Maguire, or any defender, is worth the £80million United paid for him three years ago, but that kind of outlay undoubtedly looks better on a balance sheet when the 'asset' has been available for his team at every opportunity. Look at Eden Hazard, a €100m-plus Galactico who moved at the same time as Maguire and has played roughly a quarter of the number of minutes since for Real Madrid.
TOP OF THE CHARTS
Maguire has missed 11 games for United in all competitions, most of them in the domestic cups, so comparing them directly with and without their captain is a pretty redundant exercise.
Examining his individual numbers offers a broader picture of his influence, though. He has helped United to 42 clean sheets in all competitions, the most of any defender across Europe's top five leagues in that time. He is also directly responsible for by far the most clearances (391), headed clearances (244), duels won (645) and aerials won (432).
Anyone with Maguire's minutes will naturally build up those sorts of numbers, but his averages place him in good company, too. Since his United debut, Maguire's 3.66 headed clearances per 90 minutes is better than that of John Stones (2.47), Ruben Dias (2.86) and Antonio Rudiger (3.1), and a fraction behind Virgil van Dijk (3.94). His duels-won-per-90 rate of 6.04 is marginally better than Van Dijk's (5.95) and behind only Chris Basham, Jannik Vestergaard and James Tarkowski among central defenders from England's top tier.
Unquestionably a good stopper, he has also proved suitably adept with the ball. Maguire has made 6,152 successful passes in his United career, again the most of any defender in those top European leagues over the same period. Of those passes, 2,142 have been completed in the opponent's half, which is the best figure for any nominal centre-back.
Compare United 2018-19 with how they have been since Maguire's arrival, and his impact becomes starker. In that season, when Solskjaer took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018, only six Premier League teams conceded more goals than United (70) in all competitions, while their Expected Goals Against tally of 71.8 was the fourth worst among Premier League sides. They also faced 694 shots, the third most behind Arsenal (709) and Tottenham (718), and kept only 12 clean sheets. Man City kept 33.
In Maguire's first season, United conceded only 51 in all competitions, the fewest of any Premier League sides apart from Leicester (49) and Sheffield United (45), with their xGA dropping to 59.24, the lowest of the 'big six' apart from City (55.02). They also faced 79 fewer shots and kept 27 clean sheets, more than any other Premier League side.
United have already conceded 61 times this season, but 12 of those goals came in their first three league games just a month after their run to the previous Europa League semi-finals and shortly following a legal case involving Maguire in Greece. They still have the third-best defence in the Premier League, have lost the joint fewest games (five) and have kept 24 clean sheets in all competitions, behind only City and Chelsea (31).
THE MAGUIRE WAY
Maguire can also claim to have had as much of an influence on United's patterns of play as any Solskjaer signing – barring Bruno Fernandes, of course.
Solskjaer's side have often faced difficulty against well-structured defences partly because the Red Devils sometimes lack players willing to break lines and pull opponents out of position. Counterintuitively, that's something Maguire does extremely well.
In the Premier League this season, only Ruben Dias (806) has completed more carries (moving with the ball five metres or more) than Maguire (685), who is regularly the starting point of positive United moves. Indeed, Maguire has started 24 open-play sequences to end in a shot, which is the highest number among Premier League centre-backs this term.
Similarly, Maguire has 93 shot build-up involvements, a useful measure of those players who actively contribute to attacking situations without actually taking the shot themselves. Again, only Dias (98) has more among centre-backs, while each of them has seen those involvements end in a goal 13 times, the most in the league.
Maguire has not only made United's defence more resolute; he has directly impacted their use of the ball. His absence in the coming games will be keenly felt, but at least the United captain might start to be acknowledged as one of the most influential players in England.