Almost a month on, Manchester United’s Europa League final defeat to Villarreal still hurts.

While United lost on penalties, these are and always were going to be a lottery, especially when you get down to the 11th kick taker on both teams.

The real damage was done over 120 minutes, with United’s inability to break the Spaniards down.

Despite having 60 per cent possession, United could only muster one goal against Villarreal and had to settle for a 1-1 draw after conceding from a set piece.

Last night Harry Maguire returned for England and showed United what was missing.

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(Photo by LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Progressive play from the back

It’s possible United still would have conceded the set piece against Villarreal with Maguire on the pitch. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

Where United missed Maguire was his ability to bring the ball forward, dribbling, and passing.

He played all 90 minutes for England against Czech Republic last night as he made his first appearance in six weeks.

Maguire made more passes into the penalty area (8) than any player on the pitch.

This was not a one off. Data from FBRef last season put Maguire in the top 10 in the Premier League for passes into the final third.

 

He is also listed third overall in the league for progressive carrying distance, and England nearly benefitted from one of his forays forward in the second half. Maguire ran to the edge of the box, played a disguised pass to Jude Bellingham, who almost won a penalty from the ensuing action.

There was not enough of this in Gdansk. Neither Victor Lindelof or Eric Bailly took responsibility in the same way Maguire can and frequently does.

This is such an underrated part of Maguire’s game, which was so clearly evident at Wembley last night.

Maguire touched the ball 81 times against Czech Republic, more times than anybody. He also did his duty defensively, making two clearances and one blocked shot.

Perhaps United would not have won with Maguire. Perhaps he would have missed a penalty before it even got to De Gea. But looking at it through logic, Maguire was badly missed. He showed why last night, and while we can’t do anything about it, it gives us extra reason to be rueful.

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final
(Photo by Chris Ricco – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

A lesson learned?

United are widely reported to be chasing a new centre-back this transfer window.

It is important to try and find one who has similar ability to play out from the back like Harry Maguire can.

This provides United less reliant on Maguire, increases the chance to rotate him, and means that when he is not available, the team does not suffer like in Gdansk.

As to which player specifically that might be, that’s another question entirely, and the club’s scouts should be hard at work attempting to identify a solution.

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