With no obvious candidate waiting in the wings, where do Manchester United turn for a desperately needed ‘captain fantastic’?
Historically the Red Devils have had their pick of able captains with big characters in the dressing room, but they currently face a shortage of leaders
When Jose Mourinho ripped into his players after another limp Manchester United performance on Saturday against Brighton & Hove Albion, he spared few, including his captain Antonio Valencia, accusing him of a lack of aggression.
Valencia is tough, but United’s lack of leaders has been evident several times this season, men who come to the fore when the chips are down.
The club have boasted some great past captains: Roy Keane, Bryan Robson, Gary Neville, Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic, all rightly revered as club legends. Most played in the centre, well placed to instruct and drive their men forward.
Robson – known as ‘Captain Marvel’ – believed becoming captain helped him become a better player.
“Some players will tell you their form suffered after becoming skipper because they found the added responsibility a burden and a distraction from their own game,” said Robson. “Others shy away from it because they simply feel it’s not for them, but I relished the responsibility and thrived on it.”
How much characters like Robson and his ilk have been needed in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years, when a once indomitable spirit slipped as United became just another team. They’re still trying to get back to the top, with several managerial changes off the field and an absence of leadership on it.
Manchester United have had six different captains so far this season: Valencia, Ashley Young, Paul Pogba, Chris Smalling, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Michael Carrick. They’re all respected professionals, but the diffusion of responsibility becomes apparent when things are not going United’s way. Who leads the fightback then?
Valencia, 33 in August, was a surprise choice as captain at the start of this season after the previous incumbent, Wayne Rooney, moved to Everton.
Described by Ferguson as a “a quiet, shy boy”, Valencia is a popular senior player who has been at Old Trafford since 2009, but he’d been unable to say even a few words in English after picking up his Players’ Player of the Year award in May 2017.
Who else could Jose Mourinho opt for? Paul Pogba, who played more minutes than any outfield player last season, wanted to be captain and had been told that United intended to build a team around him when he re-signed in 2016. Pogba became the main man in the dressing room at the start of this season after Rooney left and Ibrahimovic was absent with injury, the one the younger players looked up to.
Yet it was understandable that he was overlooked for the captaincy by a manager who wanted him to concentrate on his own performances, not also those of his teammates. Given his current predicament of not starting games, becoming captain is the least of his worries.
Ander Herrera had shown leadership instincts, but doubts that he’d play often enough were proved right – he’s started only eight league games this term. Juan Mata is probably better suited to leading the United Nations. A third Spaniard, David de Gea plays more games than anyone and he’s one of the top goalkeepers in the world, but he flinches at the media duties which come with being captain.
Michael Carrick, quietly authoritative and hugely respected, is 35 and unlikely to feature much. So the armband fell to the Ecuadorian.
Being captain isn’t merely a ceremonial role. Previous United captains have dealt with all manner of problems on a daily basis, from players coming to them with personal issues, tactical problems, doubts about their own form or futures. They want to know why another player said something in an interview, why the manager is being cold towards them.
A captain can be a conduit who also had to negotiate the lucrative player pools, in which various monies earned off the pitch are shared, with club officials, while Keane continually worried about how he’d distribute tickets for games. He had good reason – Robson’s predecessor Martin Buchan went to great lengths to keep close control of admission tickets for the players’ lounge at Old Trafford to keep out hangers-on.
Keane felt confident of meeting his obligations on the pitch, of rallying his men, such as when they went 2-0 down at Juventus in the semi-final of the Champions League, less so about “the greater challenge of diplomatic skills off the pitch.”
Keane was surprised to be chosen as captain ahead of Peter Schmeichel, Gary Neville, Denis Irwin and Gary Pallister. That dressing room was full of characters. Not now.
United were desperate for leadership in both legs against Sevilla, desperate for a focal point as the game passed them by in both legs. There wasn’t one and Valencia was substituted.
Valencia did speak to the media ahead of the game in Spain, but waited until the questions were translated into Spanish before giving short, anodyne, answers.
What he does on the pitch in his role as captain is what matters, but is it too much to ask that the captain of England’s biggest club speaks some English after over a decade of living in England?
Valencia is still an important United player but, given his age, United will soon be looking for another captain. The dilemma is whether it is better to keep giving it to senior figures, go with a what United hope will be a rejuvenated Pogba, or with another who is likely to be around a still improving team, even a leftfield option Eric Bailly or the hardworking and vocal Romelu Lukaku, a man often ready to intervene on behalf of his teammates and to get the best out of his team. And that’s the absolute minimum every United captain should be capable of.