United’s Leadership Question & Why It Needs an Urgent Answer

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Understandably, United have been on the receiving end of some harsh criticism following the horrific capitulation at Leicester, concerning the money we’ve lavished on big-name attacking footballers while leaving the defence relatively unattended to. The allegation is, in a nutshell, is that we’ve spent a lot of cash buying an expensive knocker for the front door while the back one is full of holes and hanging off its hinges.

We did, of course, bring in Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw in the summer and there’s every possibility that, should we require him to, Daley Blind could drop into the back four, particularly when Carrick is fit again, to shore things up there. Even so, that still leaves us with a considerable lack of defensive experience. There’s no question that there’s a generation gap for United in this area of the field. If the plan, as I suspect it was, was that, by the time, Vidic and Ferdinand moved on, Jones, Smalling and Evans would be experienced and strong enough to fill their boots, then it’s becoming abundantly clear that isn’t happening and that, rather than tagging after Ronaldo’s fluttered eyebrows with our tongues hanging out in the January window, we’d be far better buying in an experienced defender of proven quality.

My fear is it isn’t quite as simple as that. The defence at Leicester, it goes without saying, was spectacularly bad. While I feel some sympathy for Tyler Blackett – a player who’s been thrown into the fray before his time and overall made a decent go of it – more experienced players than him were guilty of errors that would be criticised on the school playing field. Evans’ failure to pick up his man for Leicester’s first goal was what allowed our opponents a vital scent of our vulnerability, and it isn’t the first time it’s happened this season. Nor is it the first time that Rafael, albeit the clear victim of a foul, has shown a fatal lack of caution in rushing back to stop his man with scant regard for the consequences. And, as the walls came tumbling down, a gaping hole in the middle of the Reds’ defence was eagerly exploited as out-of-position defenders struggled back forlornly from areas of the field they had no business being in in the first place.

What complicates the issue though is that, by and large, these were not errors of ability, but of focus and concentration. United quickly fall apart under pressure and it’s been that way for some time. It’s not only our defenders, incidentally, who do this but of course when they do it tends to be more significant and on occasions a precursor to disaster.

For me, it’s not an issue of having better defenders, but of better organisation and leadership in the side. My son drew my attention to the bit in the programme for the QPR game that gave the first eleven of Fergie’s first title-winning team with the eleven now and asked me how they compared. My view was that the likes of Di Maria and Falcao would, in terms of ability, add something to any United side in my lifetime but that is was striking how many players of proven character and spirit there were in that side of 1993 and how few there were in this one. Roy Keane commented that, when he arrived from Forest, he found a dressing room of fighters that mirrored his own attitude on the pitch. Bruce, Ince, Cantona, Hughes and others were players who, you feel, just wouldn’t have allowed this kind of collapse to happen and, if it did, they’d be doing their damnedest to put it right.

This United side is short on leaders and that, for me, is more significant than a shortage of quality defenders. The fact that Rooney has been given the club captaincy illustrates it. Were there a Bruce, a Keane, a Vidic or even a Gary Neville in the side, he’d never have got a sniff of the role. I’m not among those Reds who have criticised his performance on Sunday – first half, I actually thought he was very good in behind the front two – but his reaction to his side’s quick demise showed a lack of true leadership. Bruce, you suspect, would have placed a fatherly arm around some while telling others in no uncertain terms to sort themselves out. Keane would have been snarling and snapping and getting hold of the odd collar, but he’d have been doing that from half an hour before the game. Rooney’s shouting and gesticulating just demonstrated to his younger team mates that he’d lost control of things just as much as they had.

‘You shouldn’t need leaders,’ someone on Twitter replied to me after the game on Sunday. ‘They’re paid enough to take responsibility for their own performances.’ OK in theory, but in a team sport you do need someone to take charge on the pitch, to motivate and keep people on their toes. The best sides have several of them, as that mid-nineties United side did. Rooney, for all this spirit and unquestioned talent, will in my view never be that person. Someone else needs to do it, preferably someone in the midfield or the defence. Blind? Possibly. But whoever it is needs to do so very quickly or there will be more agonising experiences like Leicester away to come.

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8 Comments

  1. Agree 100%. It’s unsettling that of the players who played for Fergie only Rooney, RvP, and De Gea are assured a spot in the team. De Gea is not a leader and LVG didn’t pick RvP over Rooney. Frankly I think Blackett might be forced to become a leader by default. Tough learning curve though.

  2. Excellent article. Been banging on about leadership since last year. There isnt a natural leader at the club. There isnt a bone in Rooneys body that suggests leadership in my view. He has a good record of achievement at United but his head is one of the first to go when things dont go his way. In fact, I would put my head on the block and say that the captaincy will be removed from him by the end of the season. Van Gall is no fool. I think he made a mistake appointing him, which he now realises, but he will rectify it quickly.
    If he wants a captain that leads by example, I would give it to Di Maria. Failing that, he needs to buy a combative captain, one of Vidal or Strootman.

  3. There are no born leaders. Leadership is learned and the earlier we trained our versatile Rooney to be one the better. Let’s stop complaining and help him to be a great leader we desire him to be. Anyway try Rooney at central defense to organise the leaky back-line. Remember Mascherano.

  4. What is it with Fergie, Moyes and Van Gaal? The Center-back position has always been one of trademark staples in keeping clean sheets and minimum goals given away in a season. Yet all three Managers have failed in the last three seasons to bring in strong, dominating center-back protection. Now we are playing the price again. Why didn’t we get Mangala when Moyes was in charge? His name was linked with us all last season and he was still available this Summer but we left it too late and let City steal him under our very noses.

  5. We need defenders yes but we need leader(s) more!! Very well put article and couldn’t agree more…..in fact I got nostalgic thinking about Keano and what you said is exactly him!
    Problem that we face is, there were not many quality defenders on the market this summer and more importantly leadership quality players are hard to find and its hard to bring in a player like that and let him lead the line..am sure it’ll affect the dynamics in the dressing room.
    For the situation we are in, LvG needs to groom Rooney worthy of that armband….and buy those players with leadership qualities or cultivate it in players from within
    Lastly, my problem during the games is lack of instructions from the coaching staff on the bench….I understand LvG likes to sit and let the game flow but even during the WC…Danny Blind or other coaches would come out and bark their orders….Giggsy is mild mannered too but what about the other coaches?

  6. Are true leaders born not made?

    Whilst not wanting to get into the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate, paying a player bucket loads of cash does not in itself make him a good leader. Nor for that matter does it make him a better leader than if he were paid average wages.

    Leadership is not just about the personal performance of the captain, it’s also about the spirit and inspiration which any individual can instil or encourage in others.Top sides have leaders all over the pitch, meaning there are leadership qualities being demonstrated throughout a game by several players

    Rooney, though a trier as captain, has so far not demonstrated great inspirational leadership qualities; but no one else in the current side has done it either. Perhaps he will become a better captain with experience. When Roy Keane was appointed captain it was controversial because of his reputation of ‘losing it’ in moments of stress as ‘the red mist descended’. Now Keano is seen as an all time great captain. Rightly so, but he got the job at a time when there was leadership all over the pitch in the United team (and a manager at the top of his game). Interestingly enough, when the next generation of young players (eg. Ronaldo) came through, Keane struggled to lead them and ended up slagging them off on in an interview for MUTV.

    United is a team being rebuilt from the foundations upwards with its first non-British manager and a shift in culture. Van Gaal has a responsibility to ensure that leadership forms part of the building blocks. Rooney should not be captain/leader in isolation. Giving him ‘special privileges’ and making his the first name on the team sheet guarantees nothing.

  7. The truth is, Rooney is the only tough guy in the team now. I think after a couple of seasons, Jones can be a healthy contender. Rooney deserves the arm and after what he has done for the team and i personally think instead of changing the captain, lvg should groom him into that captain material

  8. Well, all is point’ Ferguson is the main man that kill manchester united, bcus he refuse to bring in quality players when neccessary, in 2012 he called Paul Scholes back to field after he retired when things goes understandable for him… So, he spoiled man u and go, as a manager see Chelsea, R. Madrid, Barca and Man city they have more than enough quality which could make job easier for any other manager to over job.

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