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Maguire's form, Varane's injuries and the reasons behind Man Utd's shocking defensive record

17:00 GMT 19/11/2021
Harry Maguire Raphael Varane Manchester United
Man Utd have invested heavily in their defence but have been unable to stem the flow of goals against this season

When Manchester United confirmed the signing of Raphael Varane in August there were high hopes that he could be the transformative addition Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side needed to become title challengers. 

It was hoped that Varane, a four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid and a reigning World Cup holder, would solve any issues in United’s backline while bringing a winner’s mentality to the dressing room. 

So far it’s not gone to plan. Varane’s two injuries have not helped but if you’re looking for statistics to back up just how poor Solskjaer’s side have been defensively this campaign, there are plenty. 

They have kept two clean sheets in their last 24 games in all competitions and conceded 11 at home in the league - the most across their first six home league matches of a season since 1976-77.  

They are without a clean sheet in their last 14 home games in all competitions - their second-worst run ever - and that’s before comparisons are made to the other teams in the league. 

United sit among the league’s worst performers when it comes to clean sheets, expected goals against [xGA] and errors leading to shots and goals. 

Only Wolves have made more errors leading to shots in the opening 11 games than United, who have made two defensive errors leading directly to goals and allowed nine shots due to their own mistakes. 

So what’s wrong? 

Solskjaer hasn’t been helped by Varane’s absences, which have already ruled him out of four games, and he is likely to be sidelined for the next couple of weeks. 

Then there has been the form of Harry Maguire. 

United’s spell of poor form, which has seen them lose six of their last 12 games, cannot be solely pinned on the England centre-back but his blip has contributed to their downfall. 

Of those nine shots that United have conceded from their own mistakes, three of them have come from Maguire. 

His pointed celebration - putting his fingers in his ears after he scored for England against Albania last week - was clearly aimed at his critics. 

Roy Keane branding him a ‘disgrace’ was over the top, and was not well received by Maguire’s family members, but the United captain can have no issue with measured criticism of his displays this season. 

By his high standards, he has been below par. 

On average per 90 minutes, his number of interceptions are down as are headed clearances. Meanwhile, the average number of goals conceded is up. In short there is room for improvement in all aspects of his game. 

His form in the last few weeks can partly be explained by the fact he was rushed back from injury. 

Not only did he struggle in the defeat against Leicester, putting in one of his worst performances in a United shirt, but it is understood the decision to start the club captain caused frustration from others in the dressing room who didn’t agree with the move to start him while he wasn’t fully fit. 

There were other options available to Solskjaer that were overlooked for a partially-fit Maguire, which shows the level of trust the United manager holds in his reserve options. 

There is also the question of belief. 

“We got punished for a first half which wasn’t aggressive, it wasn’t on the front foot and we lacked that little bit of belief,” Maguire said after the defeat to Manchester City. 

And that last word caused alarm. 

Solskjaer was surprised by his captain’s admission but anyone who has watched this United side in the past few weeks can tell they have been playing like a team without any belief or confidence. 

Footballers are trained on what to say and, perhaps, it was the admission from Maguire that came as a surprise rather than the content. 

But after a successful break with England, in which he broke a goalscoring record for English defenders after netting twice, the 28-year-old should come back to the club with more confidence than he had when he left

Maguire is one of the key players that United need to lead them out of the crisis they find themselves in. 

The ease with which United have been cut open this season is not just the fault of Maguire and the backline but also an invisible midfield which has been played through at will no matter the opposition. 

That is something Solskjaer needs to address if he is going to keep hold of his job. If they continue to leak goals in the manner they have done in the opening 11 games of the season his position is going to become even harder to keep. 

It is understood that while there are no immediate plans to sack the Norwegian he remains under immense pressure and his long-term future has not been guaranteed. 

With the calming influence of Varane set to be missing for another couple of weeks, it is down to Maguire to lead United out of their current rut - not just as the first-choice centre-back but as captain.