MANAGER Gareth Southgate last night hailed England’s Harry Maguire as one of the best ball-playing defenders in Europe.
The former Sheffield United and Hull City centre-half will step out on home turf tonight as England take on Switzerland in a friendly at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium.
Fresh from signing a bumper new five-year contract with the Foxes, Maguire is expected to be one of only two from the starting XI in Saturday’s Nations League defeat against Spain to retain his place as Southgate rings the changes.
“I was first and foremost delighted he was fit and available,” said the Three Lions’ chief about a defender who was wanted by Manchester United during the summer.
“The reason for that being when I was watching him during last season I knew that on the biggest stage he would be able to perform and excel.
“I was so pleased he was going to have the opportunity to do that and he delivered.
“He is a superb defender, he is really effective in both penalty boxes and the way that he brings the ball forward and can use the ball is as good as anything in Europe, in my opinion.
“I think he proved to himself as much as anything that against some top players and some top teams in the lead-up to the finals, during the finals and again Saturday night that he can compete with the very best.”
Southgate’s praise of Maguire caps a remarkable 15 months for the defender. Having been relegated with Hull he moved to Leicester for £17m and last season swept the board at the club’s end-of-season awards.
Then, in the summer, Maguire was a mainstay of the England team that reached the World Cup semi-finals.
It was all quite a contrast from two years earlier when he had attended Euro 2016 with his friends as a fan.
Maguire’s presence in defence will be reassuring for Southgate, whose side can create an unwanted slice of history tonight.
A Switzerland victory will mean the Three Lions have lost four consecutive games for the first time in their history.
Not that the England chief is paying too much attention to the statistics on a night when he is set to rest captain Harry Kane and a host of regulars.
“Statistics can be whatever you want them to be,” said Southgate. “I will have to live with whatever people want to say about my record, relegation (in the Nations League), whatever. I am comfortable in my own skin.
“That focus will come on me and I am not concerned about it otherwise I would make decisions just to boost my win record.
“In the build-up to last summer we played Germany, France and Spain. If it was about my win record I probably wouldn’t make those decisions. Decisions are made to develop the team.
“We have got players who are an important part of our squad. There is a lot of competition for places and close calls for who the first-choice players will be.
“A lot of the guys coming into the team (against Switzerland) have had zero minutes for their clubs. Ultimately the right thing is to give them game time, give them international matches, that’s the reason we do it. It’s important they all feel involved.”
Eric Dier will captain a side that is expected to feature the likes of Jack Butland, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph, James Tarkowski and Danny Welbeck.
“We talked a bit after the World Cup about the demands of the modern player,” explained Southgate when asked about his plans to rest key men. “Everyone has got to play a part in that, but the clubs own the player and they have got to do the right thing for themselves.
“Normally we have not got opposing objectives and the clubs would be holding their breath and hiding behind their sofas watching our teams go out.”
England on the road: Page 18.