Harry Maguire lined up in the right centre back position against Melbourne Victory today.
That may have come as a surprise to many, with the Englishmen having spent most of his career playing as a left-sided centre back.
The key to this decision is Maguire’s footedness – according to fbref, Maguire makes 86% of his touches with his right foot, which is fairly uncommon for a left-sided defender.
His game on that side is commonly to dribble infield and look for line-breaking passes through the middle of the pitch – something he was exceptional at for both Hull and Leicester City.
Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and briefly under Ralf Rangnick, Maguire fulfilled an incredibly specific job in possession, so much so that even when he did play himself out of the team, United missed him.
With United lacking a midfielder comfortable at receiving the ball from the defence and finding forward passes, the onus was on the defenders to do it, and Maguire’s propensity for dribbling infield made him essential for the team’s build-up to work (or, at least, try to).
However, playing on that side limits his ability to effectively link up with his fullback, as his right-footed passes to that flank naturally curve towards pressure from opposing forwards.
With Erik ten Hag flipping his side, his passes to his near wing will curve away from pressure, and crucially provide infield forward momentum for a right back or Jadon Sancho to run onto.
Ten Hag’s Ajax sides typically made good use of the wings, building play through fullbacks who were happy to drift infield.
That does necessitate centre-backs who can receive the ball as far out as the touchline and while Maguire has historically shown competence at doing so out on the left, his recent struggles mean that a simplification of his game can only be a good thing.
There is also an argument to be made regarding his relationship with Luke Shaw on the pitch.
Previously, when one has played well, so has the other, however calamitous showings last season would suggest that the two players are just as likely to bring the worst out of each other as they are to do otherwise.
The image of the Dutchman having to separate them on the pitch as a teacher would separate two naughty schoolchildren in a classroom is a hard one to shake.
Maguire’s position at United has often been difficult for his squad mates to threaten, so specific was his role as an inverted left-sided build-up hub.
But with a genuine left-footer in Lisandro Martinez coming in and the ambipedal Raphael Varane (59% right-footed, according to fbref), more likely to play in that position than Maguire, the England international will need to stake his claim based solely on his performances going forward.
United also have plans to recruit a deep playmaker, which would further limit the dependence on Maguire in build-up play.
However, while a missed interception led to Melbourne Victory’s opener two minutes in, Maguire did show great passing ability in his new role.
It is notable that the focus of Manchester United’s attacks were all down the right-hand side in the first half – they’ve had a left-sided bias for about half a decade now.
But the captain’s flat between-the-lines passes out to tricky winger Jadon Sancho were a huge factor, with the second goal a direct result of that link-up.
At first glance, shifting from one side to another might not seem that big of a deal, however for Harry Maguire it represents a much-needed chance to reinvent himself at United, without the safety net of a specialized role.