We are 24 minutes into the Euro 2024 final between England and France. England are playing well. They look comfortable. They’re dominating possession and making all the running. They’re building from the back, almost toying with France, but then the ball comes to Harry Maguire. His driven crossfield pass, meant for Luke Shaw, goes straight to Antoine Griezmann and suddenly England are exposed. They’re over-committed and Griezmann has time to find Kylian Mbappé, who proceeds to burst past Maguire, shoot past Jordan Pickford and put France on their way to victory.
And so the inquest begins. Why did Gareth Southgate stick with Maguire? Why was he so loyal? Couldn’t he see it coming? Because everyone can see it coming. The warning signs are hard to miss. There was another one here in Skopje, where the stakes were low and the danger for England minimal until a misstep from Maguire in the 24th minute brought North Macedonia to life, a stray pass from the centre-back instigating an attack that ended with the locals baying for a penalty after a tumble from Eljif Elmas.
In the event Maguire got away with it, albeit more through luck than judgment. He was under no pressure when he gifted possession to Bojan Miovski and he was fortunate not to be penalised for a clumsy challenge on Elmas. The North Macedonia forward’s fall was exaggerated but Maguire was not in control. Put it this way: it was more of a penalty than the one from which North Macedonia would later take the lead after Michal Ocenas, the VAR, seemed to decide it would be funny to ruin Rico Lewis’s international debut.
This is not about picking on Maguire. Others had a difficult night as England grasped for cohesion on an awkward pitch, struggled to keep their cool against niggly opponents and laboured to a 1-1 draw in their final qualifier for the Euros. When it came to regrets, nobody had more than Ollie Watkins. This was the striker’s chance to stay ahead of Callum Wilson, Ivan Toney and Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the battle to be Harry Kane’s understudy but Watkins failed to take it, managing only 11 touches before going off after 58 minutes.
In fairness to Watkins, England were muted in attack. Phil Foden was encouraging in the No 10 position but Jack Grealish did not do enough in only his third start since last year’s World Cup. Instead of seizing the initiative, this was another example of Grealish playing within himself. He continues to look like an impact substitute.
But England have other options in defence. The bigger concern is Maguire. He has won back his place at Manchester United and is undoubtedly a solid, brave, committed defender. But while some of the treatment has crossed the line, it remains difficult to ignore the errors that undermine his game.
One slip can make a huge difference in knockout football. Maguire was good at last year’s World Cup but he still lost Olivier Giroud when the striker scored France’s winner against England in the last eight. There are too many blips. There was another one against Italy in March and an own-goal against Scotland in September.
Southgate has remained defiant, refusing to drop Maguire, trusting his partnership with John Stones. But the question is whether the manager’s patience is running out. North Macedonia targeted Maguire at times. There was more flat-footed defending in the second half, only for Declan Rice to come to the rescue. Meanwhile England’s other centre-back, Marc Guéhi, was coasting through the game with ease and impressing once again.
Guéhi’s emergence puts Maguire at risk. The Crystal Palace centre-back is inexperienced but he is quick, alert and composed on the ball. Guéhi, who is above Lewis Dunk, Fikayo Tomori and Ezri Konsa in the pecking order, is pushing. His case to partner Stones is growing. Maguire’s is weakening. He has to wake up. Otherwise he is going to cost England.