Manchester United are reportedly being spearheaded behind the scenes by a handpicked leadership group of manager Erik ten Hag’s choosing. The Dutch head coach is believed to have chosen captain Harry Maguire, David De Gea, Bruno Fernandes and Tom Heaton.
The most striking thought while viewing this list is firstly the omissions. With the group’s apparent remit being to “lead by example” according to reports, there are some names you expect to see. Christian Eriksen has been an exemplary pro since arriving on a free transfer this summer. He has experience at the highest level and is regularly the best player on the pitch in a United shirt. Eriksen can often be seen cajoling and positioning his teammates on the field, making him seem a natural fit for a designated leadership core.
Another recent arrival who seems born for a role as one of Ten Hag’s lieutenants is Lisandro Martinez. The diminutive but dogged centre back is another who fits the “lead by example” remit. One of United’s finest performers this season, he also sets lofty standards. Martinez was reported to have joined Fernandes in delivering some loud home truths to his teammates after their 6-3 defeat by Manchester City last Sunday.
The reason these two prime candidates are not yet embedded in Ten Hag’s semi-official leadership structure might be their tenure. Both men have only recently joined the club and are still acclimatising to their new surroundings. Despite their obvious qualities, perhaps the burden of defined leadership roles is too much to ask of them at this stage.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the elephant in the room here. A player who has won it all with the Red Devils, albeit in a different era. A wealth of experience under his belt as one of the world’s greatest players. There is almost nothing worth knowing as a footballer that Ronaldo could not impart. But the fact is, Ronaldo wants out. Ten Hag would be foolish to delegate responsibility to a man with one eye on the exit door.
So what of the men who were chosen? Maguire seems an obvious pick on the surface. The England defender is the current club captain after all. But there may have been another motivating factor for Ten Hag. Maguire has seen his role on the pitch significantly reduced this term. Martinez and Raphael Varane have usurped him as the club’s go-to defensive pairing. While no real substitute for playing time, being a significant voice in the dressing room helps stress to Maguire his continued importance.
Fernandes seems like a no-brainer. Ever since he joined in January 2020 he has cut a talismanic figure at Old Trafford. He is often seen remonstrating with teammates on the field and is known to take these interactions off the pitch. When United are winning this is reported as professionalism, when they are losing it is labelled as petulance. But what cannot be doubted is that Fernandes cares. The Portugal midfielder also usually wears the captain’s armband when Maguire is not starting.
De Gea provides that last link with the United of old. He is the only member of the current squad playing regularly who has lifted the Premier League title at the club. The Spaniard used to shun the spotlight in his younger days, but now often carries the can for poor performances. De Gea’s media appearances have increased as results have declined, with the goalkeeper often taking it upon himself to explain a poor display. That link to United’s past is vital and considering his age of 31 is young for a keeper, he could be an influence for years to come.
Heaton is perhaps the outlier here. The 36-year-old certainly brings experience to proceedings, but very little of it has been in a Manchester United shirt. Heaton was at the club during the glory years under Sir Alex Ferguson, but he played no part on the pitch. Since returning at the start of last season he has played just once. But the veteran stopper is an England international who has played in every professional tier of the domestic league. At 36 years of age he is not looking to hog the glory and perhaps can provide a wise ear for some of United’s wealth of young talent. His predecessor, Lee Grant, has since gone into coaching at Ipswich Town. It is easy to envisage Heaton, who has almost 400 professional games under his belt, using this as the jumping off point to a career as a coach.
Ten Hag has recognised the disarray United have suffered in recent years. There has been a culture of divide and fingerpointing at the club and a lack of leaders on the pitch. As part of his grand reset, Ten Hag has sought to rectify this. Ultimately its efficacy will be judged by results on the pitch, but at least the current coaching team at United are showing an awareness of long-term problems at the club.
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