Before his sacking last year, Jose Mourinho would often dismiss change at Manchester United as having come “too late” and their £80m signing of Harry Maguire on Monday will not have changed his opinion.
Maguire was one of the few defensive targets Mourinho and United’s recruitment team agreed about last summer — the Portuguese boss even made a personal plea after the 2018 World Cup — but the club felt Leicester were asking for too much money and talks never got off the ground.
Fast forward 12 months and Maguire is finally a United player. After an initial phone call in May, it took more than two months for executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward and chief negotiator Matt Judge to talk Leicester down from £85 million, plus another £10m in add-ons, to the £80m they agreed upon.
After a breakthrough in talks on Friday, the 26-year-old signed a six-year contract at Old Trafford a few days later, with the option of another 12 months. It is the longest deal United have ever offered a player and the fee paid is a world record for a defender.
In an inflated market, though, United feel they have got a fair deal for a proven Premier League performer and England international. There are several reasons why.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to bring in a player with leadership qualities. Having played alongside Roy Keane, Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and Denis Irwin, the United boss felt the dressing room lacked focus and direction.
Privately, Solskjaer is already talking about Maguire as a future club captain. He will wear the No. 5 shirt and is seen as what United staff call an “attitude leader”; the club were impressed that he did not bring an entourage when he arrived at Carrington for his medical at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning, only his agent Kenneth Shepherd.
After completing four hours of tests and a lengthy MUTV interview, Maguire chose to spend a quiet evening at the Lowry Hotel while his girlfriend, Fern Hawkins, went out in Manchester. No wild celebrations, just focus on the job at hand.
United had reason to be happy, though. Manchester City were also interested in Maguire and it was telling that, after Sunday’s Community Shield, Pep Guardiola made a point of congratulating his club’s crosstown rivals before saying that City “could not afford” the £80m fee.
Good on the ball and with a talent for driving into midfield from the back, Maguire is a Guardiola-type player, but his arrival at Old Trafford is evidence that Solskjaer is trying to change the way United play.
The new man and Victor Lindelof will first-choice at centre-back, with the idea that attacks will start from United’s half, rather than from direct balls into Romelu Lukaku, who might leave the club this month, or Marouane Fellaini, who departed in January.
Maguire’s arrival could impact other central defenders, who include Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones, Axel Tuanzebe, Marcos Rojo and, specifically, Chris Smalling, who was jettisoned from the England squad by Gareth Southgate after 31 caps because he is not as good on the ball as, among others, Maguire.
Smalling did not play a minute of United’s final two friendlies against Kristiansund and Milan — before Maguire had arrived — and while the new contract he signed in December means he could refuse to move, it would not be a surprise if he was left out of the matchday squad when Chelsea visit Old Trafford to kick off the Premier League season on Sunday.
Even if no one else comes in, Solskjaer believes Maguire’s arrival has taken United’s summer spending from adequate to impressive.
After five years of scatter-gun deals, Solskjaer has tried to follow a plan. Three British players — Dan James, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Maguire — have come in for around £145m, all with the idea that they can improve. Just as important, they are signings that alter the dynamic of the dressing room.
Solskjaer has a group of key British players that also includes Ashley Young, Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard and Scott McTominay. Though the manager was born in Norway, having played for 11 years under Sir Alex Ferguson in a successful team built around Keane, Irwin, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, he understands the importance of a homegrown core.
United certainly did not get Maguire, or Wan-Bissaka for that matter, on the cheap, but the club have been willing to push the boat out because these players are seen as a key part of what Solskjaer is trying to achieve both on and off the pitch.
As negotiations with Leicester reached a climax, United assistant Mike Phelan told Maguire he was the only defender they wanted this summer. His seven-year contract underlines how important the club think he will be to their future and, though he may not have the Instagram followers of Paulo Dybala or sell the same number of shirts as Gareth Bale, for Solskjaer he’s a marquee signing, who can change a lot at Old Trafford.