Speaking ahead of Manchester United's Premier League fixture with Luton Town at his usual Friday news conference, held inside the Jimmy Murphy building at the club's Carrington training ground, Erik ten Hag was asked more than once about centre-back Raphaël Varane. The questions focused on why the France World Cup winner couldn't get in the team and most of the answers formed part of the same theme.
According to the Dutchman, Harry Maguire is playing too well to leave out.
After helping United keep a clean sheet in that 1-0 win over Luton, Maguire said his decision to stay at Old Trafford in the summer -- rather than accept an offer to move to West Ham -- has been vindicated and for the first time since March 2022, the 30-year-old has joined up with England while being a regular at his club.
It's quite the turnaround for Maguire, who has spent most of the last 18 months in the shadows. Still the most expensive defender in football history after his £80 million move from Leicester City in 2019, he made only eight Premier League starts last season as Ten Hag settled on a preferred centre-back partnership of Varane and Lisandro Martínez.
He couldn't get in the team even after Martinez fractured his foot at the end of last season -- Varane and Victor Lindelöf started the FA Cup final against Manchester City in June -- but with the Argentine suffering a reoccurrence of the same injury in September, Ten Hag turned to Maguire.
People close to Maguire insist that nothing has changed, and that his level in training and matches has remained high throughout his time out of the team. But speaking after United's 2-1 win against Sheffield United in October, Ten Hag hinted that the England defender's return has coincided with a better understanding of how he has to play.
"I have to say Harry is playing like we want him to play," he said. "Very proactive out of possession, dominating his opponent, stepping in when necessary, reading the game, good covering but also in possession very proactive, stepping in, delivering good passes, switching. I am happy with his performance."
Sources close to Ten Hag have told ESPN that he's also been impressed with Maguire's attitude since learning in the summer he would be stripped of the captaincy.
After handing over the armband to Bruno Fernandes, there were concerns that the change could disrupt the dressing room, yet it's been noted how well Maguire has handled the decision, particularly one considered relatively embarrassing. Even though he's no longer the senior leader in the squad, he's still taken on a role in trying to convince England teammate Jadon Sancho to apologise to Ten Hag and end his exile from the first team.
As one United source put it, Maguire has become a player Ten Hag can trust during what has been a chastening start to the campaign. There have been concerns about the commitment of certain squad members during the run of poor results and Ten Hag has looked to pick "fighters" in an effort to dig the team out of a hole.
Speaking in the dressing room at Craven Cottage after a narrow 1-0 win at Fulham, Ten Hag praised the fighting spirit of his players in a game everyone knew they could not afford to lose. Jonny Evans, Scott McTominay, and Alejandro Garnacho were singled out for special mention along with Maguire, who twice looked like he would have to come off with an injury, only to carry on both times.
Ten Hag has reached the conclusion that Maguire and Varane aren't suited as centre-back partners because, as he put it, "the build-up is not that fluid when one of them is playing from the left centre-back position." And so, when he wanted to bring back Lindelof for the game against Luton, it was the four-time Champions League winner who was left out.
Three months after it looked likely that Maguire would leave Old Trafford, there's now speculation about Varane's future ahead of the January transfer window instead, particularly amid tentative interest from the Saudi Pro League. A source close to Varane has insisted nothing has been decided but, at 30 years old, he wants to play regularly.
United insist Maguire was never being forced out in the summer, but they also don't deny he was available for transfer, believing that the £30m offer from West Ham in August represented good value for a player whose prospects at Old Trafford looked bleak.
One of five senior centre-backs in the squad, his long-term future still isn't certain and Ten Hag faces a tough decision when Martinez returns from injury, possibly before the end of the year. For now, though, Maguire is Ten Hag's man of the moment and for the first time in a long time, he's too important to leave out.