England manager Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane have come to the defence of Harry Maguire after what has been the most difficult period of the centre-back’s career.

Maguire has struggled for minutes at Manchester United under new manager Erik ten Hag, who has favoured Lisandro Martinez and Raphaël Varane, leaving Southgate in a bind with one of his most reliable performers barely playing.

Maguire, 29, has won 47 caps under Southgate, scoring seven times, and was a leading figure in runs to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and the final of last summer’s European Championship. Yet following a poor last camp – England lost 1-0 away and were thrashed 4-0 at home to Hungary, either side of a 1-1 draw with Germany and goalless game against Italy – Southgate has come under pressure to drop Maguire.

“There’s been some unfair criticism,” Kane said. “Harry has been incredible in an England shirt for a long period of time now, going back to the World Cup in 2018. Of course he would be the first to admit his club form has not been as good as he would like, but that doesn’t take away from what a great player he is.

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“He is finding himself at a stage where he is having to fight his way back into the Manchester United team and knowing him – and I do very well – he will be working very hard to do that, to prove he should be in the starting XI.”

Southgate’s preference has been to pair Maguire with John Stones, and with the Manchester City defender suspended Maguire is certain to start against Italy on Friday. But comparisons to other English centre-backs do not place him in a favourable light.

Maguire has played only 281 minutes this season, conceding a goal every 40.1 minutes – the worst rate of any of his England defensive counterparts. At the other end of the scale, Conor Coady, on loan at Everton from Wolves, has played 531 minutes, conceding a goal every 132.8 minutes.

Southgate, however, is prepared to stand by his man, insisting that he doesn’t actually have replacements with enough experience. “You always have to back your judgement and we feel [Maguire] is an important player,” Southgate said.

“If we thought there were experienced players ready to step in and play at a level above him there would be a different consideration.

“[Maguire] is our most dominant aerial centre-back. Him and John are incredible with the ball really – the amount of pressure they have taken for the team in tournaments we have played because we don’t always have that midfield pivot player who can progress the game.

“It means there is a huge amount more pressure on our centre-backs to use the ball well and those two are as good as any in world football at doing that.”

Maguire will face the toughest of tests in two Nations League games, in Milan on Friday evening and against Germany at Wembley on Monday. England have not won in Italy since 1961.

Team news

Possible England line-up (3-4-3): Ramsdale; Walker, Dier, Maguire; James, Trippier, Rice, Bellingham; Sterling, Mount, Kane

Possible Italy line-up (3-5-2): Donnarumma; Bonucci, Acerbi, Bastoni; Lorenzo, Emerson, Jorginho, Tonali, Barella; Scamacca, Immobile

Beyond that, Southgate says he needs to see Maguire – and his other stars not playing regularly – playing more for their clubs again.

“You want your best players playing regularly so that they’re physically in a good place and mentally in a good place,” Southgate explained. “But Maguire is an important player for us. It’s important to back our best players.

“The squad we’ve picked, there are a fair number of players you could argue we could have left out at this point, but we wanted to keep that group together and to keep them involved, keep them feeling part of it. But also they know that, for some of them, that they need to be playing more regularly.

“Now we’re only a few weeks on from pre-season so physically if they’ve had a few 90 minutes, that’s fine. Another seven to eight weeks, that does start to become more complicated.”

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