It has been a triumph of leadership at Old Trafford. That may have been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s intention when he fast-tracked Harry Maguire to the captaincy, but now Manchester United’s leader is neither the Norwegian nor his chosen skipper. Erik ten Hag used United’s club captain in his ninth successive win but Maguire came on after 89 minutes, just as he had at Wolves.
A fine World Cup may have altered his place in the pecking order at Old Trafford, but in the wrong direction. With Ten Hag picking Luke Shaw as a central defender in the Manchester derby, Maguire now only seems the third-choice left-sided centre-back. At least, as he came on ahead of Victor Lindelof, he may only be second in line on the right. He has begun two league games since the 4-0 shellacking at Brentford and, while his manager may praise him in public, his mind feels made up.
But at a time when the captain is demoted and diminished, they seem to have more leaders than at any point for years. It is partly a product of Ten Hag’s firm grip, of his determination to instil a winning ethos. “Mentality has a lot of elements,” he explained. “One of them is resilience. The determination of this team is progressing a lot in dealing with setbacks, dealing with suffering in painful moments.” Which, after a swift turnaround to overcome Manchester City, United certainly did. A team with a tendency to wilt last season appear to have acquired character.
Bruno Fernandes led by example, an equaliser with the armband on illustrating that the vice-captain is the de facto captain now. He was another Solskjaer was quick to promote from the ranks. Ten Hag appreciates his running power, positional intelligence and creativity. He is less central in some respects, often playing off the right flank, and more so in others, with Maguire out of the starting 11. “I said before the game to the team: ‘We look like a team now,’” Fernandes said.
If they stopped resembling a side under Maguire, if his captaincy will prove collateral damage from Cristiano Ronaldo’s divisive second coming and the implosion of Solskjaer’s regime, part of the Englishman’s problem may have been the faith his manager invested in him.
If Solskjaer saw Maguire as the latest in a line of United’s warrior-captains, the vitriolic attacks by his most iconic predecessor, Roy Keane, indicated others saw a sullen, increasingly haunted figure who lacked such inspirational powers.
And if Fernandes inherits the armband on a more permanent basis, it may be as first among equals. Yet he is helped by the sense this is a squad now blessed with leaders. It is one of the ways Casemiro is a catalytic signing: he is the kind of midfield general who exudes authority.
Minus Maguire, Raphael Varane has emerged as the senior centre-back: a status as a World Cup winner and four-time Champions League winner has been allied with a commitment shown when he rushed back from Qatar to play in the absence of other centre-backs. David de Gea was one of United’s most eloquent critics last season and is voicing a desire to commit the rest of his career to the club. Marcus Rashford can be the local leader, the figurehead of a revival and a man who assumes the most responsibility for winning games.
From Christian Eriksen’s maturity to Lisandro Martinez’s fearlessness, Ten Hag may have imported different types of leaders. “This club is a monster,” Ten Hag said. More than most, United require big characters and, in their different ways, his recruits like Casemiro, Eriksen and Martinez show few signs of being intimidated by that monster.
If the teenager Alejandro Garnacho belongs to United’s tradition of teenage talents, they are not a young team. The ability to sign senior figures from Real Madrid helps. The battle-hardened have a history of responding in adversity. “We have also experienced players on the pitch and I think we are much better [equipped] to deal with such situations than a couple of months ago,” Ten Hag said.
Maybe leadership, like team spirit, is glimpsed more in victory and United’s latest stemmed in part from a contentious offside decision. Yet this has been a perception-shifting few months: a club on the slide has become a team on the rise and a fractured group have become United.
The view from the Old Trafford old guard, expressed in the last year by Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Gary Neville, Wes Brown and Keane, was that they lacked leadership on the pitch these days. It often felt a fair criticism then. It doesn’t now.
But each was speaking from experience. Sir Alex Ferguson’s best teams invariably allied their technical and physical prowess with a strength of character and several plausible candidates for the captaincy.
Keane joined a team featuring Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce, Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Peter Schmeichel. Evra, Ferdinand and Neville played alongside Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs.
Perhaps Maguire was overpromoted, maybe he struggled with the surroundings of a failing team but in a core of Fernandes, Varane, Rashford, De Gea, Casemiro and co, United may have several with the personality and purpose required. And with a few more wins, their leaders could lead the league.