Aye, Aye Captain
MANCHESTER United finally look like we have, in Louis van Gaal, a captain capable of steering the club through the troubled waters of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that hit us like an iceberg striking the Titanic.
We have our new Ahab, but the question remains as to who will be his skipper as we look to retrieve our lost treasure of the Premier League crown and relocate the glittering gold of Champions League qualification.
Is it that big a deal or not as to who will be our new captain?
After last season’s misery and the optimism of the summer following the appointment of Van Gaal, the performance of his Dutch team at the World Cup in Brazil and subsequent positive results and fairly impressive performances of the new-look United in pre-season, the issue of captaincy has only bobbed infrequently above the surface.
For starters, it’s just nice to see us looking like our old selves again. OK, yes, it’s only pre-season, I understand that. Still, the performances and results across the pond this summer have been more encouraging than pretty much anything we saw under David Moyes. Anyone remember the 1-0 defeat to the Singha ‘All Stars’ in Moyes’ first game in charge of United in July 2013? Or the 3-2 loss to the Yokohama Marinos or the 2-2 draw against Cerezo Osaka a few weeks later?
Who Van Gaal will choose as his first captain is certainly a point of significance though. It seems even more important when you consider the departures of Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, and the fact the on-field presence of Ryan Giggs will be missing this season.
With our record appearance holder having retired, the presence of leadership at Old Trafford has disappeared. Our four most senior players will no longer be playing for the Reds, so that suggests picking the right captain is actually rather vital.
Of course, we do still have senior players – Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick – in our ranks, but you cannot overlook the fact that four players, all of whom had rather elongated stints as captain, and who made over 2,000 United appearances between them, have left within a matter of months.
So who are the candidates for captain? At the World Cup under Van Gaal, Holland were impressive, mesmeric even during the group stages, especially as they brought down the Spanish empire that has dominated the international landscape for the past six or seven years. With Van Persie scoring freely in the early stages in Brazil, reports centred on how Van Gaal is able to get the best out of the frontman, who displayed a far moodier front to the press throughout the Moyes era – if you can call it that – than in his debut season. It was said earlier in the summer to be a foregone conclusion that the former Arsenal striker would be made Van Gaal’s new field marshal.
With RVP resting after Holland’s World Cup exploits and Van Gaal revealing he is set to miss the season’s kick-off, however, it remains to be seen whether he will be the first player to wear the armband though, if at all this season.
Fletcher, Rooney, even Tom Cleverley, have worn the armband during the US tour, but let’s look at the most likely or popular candidates.
Robin van Persie:
Has to be the leading candidate, just above Rooney. He was captain at the Emirates and led the way with a slew of goals in his debut season at United as the Reds won their 20th title. Van Persie had a mixed 2013/14 campaign as United struggled under Moyes. It was clear for all to see that Van Persie wasn’t happy with Moyes, partly because of the shift in tactics under the Scotsman but also due to the fact one of the main reasons Van Persie signed for United was so he could work under Sir Alex. Van Persie also had a mixed season in terms of injuries, although he still scored 12 goals in 21 Premier League games and 18 in 28 overall, finishing only one goal below topscorer Rooney, despite playing 12 less games.
He clearly loves being a captain and would probably thrive even more. With excitement surrounding Van Gaal’s United as they get set to erase the painful memories of the previous campaign, the love-in between the two would surely see us hit the ground running.
He speaks eloquently off the pitch and talks the language of the fans, while his relationship with compatriot Van Gaal was evidenced at the World Cup in Brazil. The two clearly have a superb understanding of each other and Van Persie has long been Van Gaal’s on field deputy for the Dutch.
The only problem is that Van Persie has not taken part in full club pre-season following his World Cup heroics and Van Gaal has already revealed that he will not be fit for the season opener against Swansea City this weekend.
Despite the understanding between the two Dutchmen, Wayne Rooney would be my United captain every single day of the week – if it wasn’t for the ugly dark cloud that will hang over him for the rest of his United career.
Asking and then trying to force through moves away from Old Trafford in 2010 and 2013 will forever be a black spot in his Reds’ history. It may happen at other clubs, but you simply don’t ask for a transfer away from Old Trafford at the height of your popularity.
Some diehard fans have never accepted Rooney – a scouser – but the tide of anger and resentment against him now is probably in the majority.
Personally, I said way back in 2010 that I’d never be able to forgive or forget, but while he’s playing in a red shirt, and scoring and making goals, I’ll cheer for him.
In all fairness, in a dismal season under Moyes, Rooney bore the brunt of the burden and carried the team at times, enjoying a good season individually. He was one of two shining lights, alongside David de Gea.
While I would certainly not fully back any decision to make him captain, giving him the armband would, like Van Persie, make him play even better.
He is, after all, a natural leader and despite the sourness of his relationship with United fans these days, he does give his heart and soul for the club on the pitch every game.
While he remains a United player, I’d like to see him playing as passionately and as motivated as possible, and Van Gaal could do a lot worse than making him his skipper.
Fletch is undeniably third in the pecking order behind Van Persie and Rooney, but that does not mean he does not warrant significant consideration by Van Gaal.
Fans, Fergie and players like Giggs and Gary Neville always talk of ‘United players’ and Fletcher is the very definition of one.
At United since a young age and entrenched in the United way, he knows what it takes to represent the club and what the club means to the fans, he understands what it means to put on the shirt.
The Scotsman’s name would never be at the top of a list of United players coveted by other clubs, nor will it be on the lips of fantasy football team managers up and down the country this week, but the success of teams with even the biggest names is built upon the grit and guts of players like Fletcher.
There is so much to admire about him, from his very emergence as a first team regular at United following an inconspicuous first couple of seasons in a red shirt, to becoming a vital player in the latter Ferguson years.
United were unfortunate, in getting to the Champions League finals of 2009 and 2011, that they came up against Barcelona in their prime, but if Fletcher had not been harshly sent off in the semi-final second leg against Arsenal in 2009, then the result in the final might feasibly have been different.
Fletcher, like Ji-Sung Park, was a valuable Ferguson soldier, to compliment the explosive talents of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, but that is not to say that he is not a talented player himself.
A tremendous worker and underrated passer, he has always been reliable on the big occasions and scored some important goals in his reds’ career.
Many were tipping Fletcher to be a casualty when Van Gaal first took over. Now they claim he will only be a squad player at best, but try telling that to a man who has battled through a career threatening bowel condition to still be in the first team picture at one of the biggest clubs on the planet.
Add to that the fact the naturally fit and athletic Fletcher has just got a first, full pre-season under his belt in three years, and you’ve got far more than a bit part veteran.
United still need to sign at least one top quality midfielder and if they do, then Fletcher will more than likely be second choice, but there’s not a much better example to have around the younger and new players to look up to.
Jonny Evans/Phil Jones:
I like the idea of a member of the spine of the squad being a captain, and some of United’s greatest skippers have been centre halves – Bruce, Vidic, Ferdinand, Martin Buchan.
But despite their clear ability as footballers, neither Evans or Jones would be able to command the respect of their fellow players.
I’m sure that their team-mates respect them, but neither has the experience or first team longevity to fall back on, though both arguably possess leadership qualities.
Both of them, and Chris Smalling, have the talent, but it would probably shine best with a superior talent playing alongside them, not to mention a season uninterrupted by injury, which both players are yet to enjoy at Old Trafford.
I imagine that Michael Carrick’s personality and attitude is rather like his footballing style – soft and smooth. I’m not sure that he would ever make a good leader. He certainly wouldn’t be a captain in the typical sense, a la Roy Keane, dishing out rollockings and leaving his mark on opponents’ bodies. But he’s one of the senior players remaining in the squad, playing in a pivotal position of the pitch, and he is a very experienced footballer.
He would bring a calm presence, but perhaps too calm for the likes of heated encounters against Liverpool and Man City.
While Carrick is a fine player, one of his biggest criticisms is that he often doesn’t impose himself on games. He tends to need a powerful and vocal colleague to play alongside him to bring the best out of him.
He’s also injured for a significant, early part of the season, so he’s unlikely to be given the armband.
David de Gea:
I’m of the opinion that you should never have goalkeepers as captains, but some of the greatest stoppers of all time have made fine leaders, such as Dino Zoff, Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas and Lev Yashin.
It also cannot be argued that De Gea has grown up hugely since the spindly little Bambi lookalike that first arrived from Atletico Madrid three summers ago.
He was plagued in his early days by high profile, rookie errors that were immediately picked up on by the media.
His price tag also weighed heavily on him and few outside the club and its fans believed he had the physical and mental toughness to make it in England. He has shaken the mistakes out of him though and is now one of United’s most important players. He’s bulked up and gained confidence while in a largely forgettable 2013/14 season, he was a rare shining light.
He was, in my opinion, United’s best player last season, backed up by the fact he won both the player of the year and player’s player of the year award at the club’s annual end of season awards ceremony.
The fact De Gea won both awards said much about how dismal our season was, but there is no escaping that the Spaniard has grown tremendously as a player in his three years in Manchester.
Yes, I’m diving into the realms of fantasy here and hate to tempt fate, but if either of these two players were to arrive at Old Trafford this month, they would immediately be a candidate for captaincy.
It used to be that I loved the summer, spending sunny days listening to and reading about the players United were rumoured to be signing. Now, I absolutely despise it and wish the phrase ‘transfer rumour mill’ would just die.
We’re linked with a new name every day and transfer sagas involving our pursuits of major targets infuriate me. One day they’re on the verge of signing, the next they’ve ruled out a move to United, the following day we’ve agreed personal terms, the next he’s told his gran’s pet pigeon’s neighbour that his wife isn’t keen on the perennial wetness of Manchester.
Until you see the new player holding a scarf in the backdrop of the stadium, don’t believe the hype.
The only thing that’s clear about Vidal and Hummels is that they’re probably Van Gaal’s two premier targets. Both would bring security and presence to two areas of the pitch where both attributes are sorely needed.
Vidal was simply immense in Juventus’ engine room last season and whereas Ander Herrera will bring grace and guile to our midfield, Vidal would be the box to box, workaholic enforcer that we’ve craved since Roy Keane’s exit.
Evidently not fully fit for Chile, Vidal was still a major presence at this summer’s World Cup and apart from his almost insatiable appetite for work, he has a keen eye for goal too.
Despite niggling injuries and doubts about all three for a number of years, I still like our young defensive trio of Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans, and believe all three still have bright United futures. But all three lack top level experience and would flourish, I think, with at least one world class centre back alongside them.
World Cup winner Hummels certainly fits the bill.
He would be a Rolls Royce style signing, in the Rio Ferdinand mould, and despite the promise our three young centre halves possess, with Evra, Rio and Vidic gone, we need a leader at the back, and the Dortmund stopper certainly is that.