The departure of Nemanja Vidic to Inter Milan has not only left a hole in Manchester United’s defence, but also stripped the club of their captain and leader. Under David Moyes, the armband looked sure to be handed to Wayne Rooney, however with van Gaal at the helm all the smart money is on Robin van Persie to take over in August. However it is possible that there are better options in the squad. As many of the contenders are out in Brazil proving their credentials, it seems like a good time to look at the candidates and assess their suitability.
Robin van Persie: This particular ‘favourites’ section can only really consist of one player. Holland’s talismanic striker has been the clear favourite to take over as captain ever since Louis van Gaal was announced as the new Manchester United manager in May. The bond between the two is obvious, both on the pitch, where van Persie captains van Gaal’s Netherlands team, and off it. In a recent interview van Persie said he has “never had a relationship with a coach like I have with van Gaal… From minute one we got along well.” The feeling appears very much to be mutual; when asked about van Persie before the World Cup, van Gaal said “he is my captain… you always make a player captain when you have the same morals and philosophy.” If you want to know who will be United’s captain next season you can stop reading now. However, van Persie’s injury record is not great, and is only likely to get worse with the forward’s age, and he has at times shown his frustration with a wild challenge or two. Still, Nemanja Vidic carried similar risks and it is impossible to doubt that he was the right man for the captaincy.
Wayne Rooney: Rooney has stood in as United captain before, particularly frequently last season under David Moyes. He is one of the longest serving players in the team, having joined in 2004, and his preferred position at the heart of the attack means he has the opportunity – and talent – to grab games by the scruff of the neck and lead the team from the front. However, his two attempts in three years to manufacture moves to rival clubs have soured his relationship with many fans and are hardly evidence of the kind of commitment required of a captain. This, combined with his history of a less than professional attitude towards his career off the field mean that Rooney will have to go some distance to convince Louis van Gaal that he is the man to wear the armband.
Patrice Evra: United’s marauding left back was the vice-captain under Sir Alex Ferguson and David Moyes, meaning he has had ample experience captaining the side over the past few seasons. According to the excellent United writer Daniel Harris (@DanielHarris) Evra was famously one of just three players – along with Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Mata – to ask for a tour of the Old Trafford museum after signing for the club. In his early days at the club, he famously watched videos of United heroes in his spare time, studying the history and legend of the club. Put simply, he gets it, a quality the importance of which cannot be overstated in a captain. The major stumbling block in his captaincy is the fact that his obvious defensive frailties mean he will almost certainly be replaced by a new left back next season. In this period of transition, though, Evra will have a big role to play off the field, if not always on it.
Phil Jones: It seems a very long time since the title celebrations at the end of last season in which Sir Alex Ferguson – admittedly, slightly drunk on a cocktail of champagne and elation – said of Phil Jones that “the way he’s looking, he could be our best ever player.” It is even longer since Bobby Charlton compared Jones to the great Duncan Edwards, a player whose reputation at Old Trafford is nothing short of godlike. So far in his United career, Phil Jones has not quite lived up to these expectations, but the fact that two men so well versed in football and what it takes to succeed at Old Trafford have singled him out for such lofty praise speaks volumes of his talent and temperament.At 22, Jones could lead the team for 10 years or more if appointed as captain now, but it is probably too early to hand him such a large responsibility. Given his injuries and inconsistency, both Jones and United would be better served if he focused for the moment on winning a regular place at the heart of the defence. He is certain to wear the armband at some point in his career.
Juan Mata: The Spanish magician and consistent contender for Most Handsome Footballer only signed in January, but he is already universally loved by the Old Trafford crowd. He is arguably United’s best player, and has the potential be the fulcrum of a fast, free flowing attack under van Gaal next season. His professionalism is exemplary and his ability breathtaking. He would be a great player for the rest of the team to look up to. He is also another of the three players to take a tour of the museum after arriving at United, showing that he too understands what it takes to be a United player. Realistically, it is too early in his Old Trafford career for him to lead the team, and he is perhaps not quite vocal enough to drag his team through a battle on one of those famous wet Wednesday nights in Stoke.
Several players in the squad could warrant honourable mentions, David de Gea was United’s best player last season, and is all but guaranteed his spot in the team for the next 10 years, and Michael Carrick still has the ability to make United’s midfield tick. However much of the discussion is academic as it seems certain that van Gaal has made his choice. But with the question marks over van Persie’s fitness and age, it is definitely worth keeping an eye the other candidates for the armband at Old Trafford.