Manchester United are a team of endless talent and potential who do not have a leader on the pitch. José Mourinho’s criticism that United lack “personality” is spot on, even though he needs to be the one to find the solution to that. Whether that player rises from the ranks or is brought in the summer transfer window, Mourinho and United are desperate for the player leadership necessary to progress as a team.
United need leadership on the pitch as well as on the touchline. Moyes and Van Gaal squandered Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie’s later years of top form, and since then neither one of them or Mourinho has been able to bring in, or bring up, someone to fill the void.
United don’t need a new manager; they need a bully. They need a leader with the mental and physical strength to play through bad games. Someone who bullies the other team whether in or out of possession like Roy Keane. Someone who demands the ball at their feet because they know they’re the one who can deliver the win, like Wayne Rooney. Antonio Valencia rightfully wears the captain’s armband, but he does not dictate the tempo of the game and is not involved in every play.
The ideal in house candidate is Paul Pogba. He’s an expensive signing and former youth player, he has worldly star power, work ethic, and ability, and he plays in a position that allows him to constantly be involved.
The problem is that Pogba hasn’t stepped up yet, at least not consistently. He isn’t always a vocal leader, he’s easily frustrated, and when it seems as though he’s finally at the level expected of him something happens to set him back (injury, bad game, etc.). Pogba also isn’t as assertive in matches as he needs to be, especially if he wants to be captain in a couple years time. If Pogba is to become the leader United believed they were investing in then it’s Mourinho’s job to find the best way to utilize him. Many have criticized the tactics as not enough to free up Pogba, but maybe the problem is that Pogba himself is not enough right now.
And if not Pogba, who else at the club could fill the leadership vacuum (healthy debate always welcome in the comments)?
As impressive as United have been in some big games under Mourinho (including against the teams I’m about to mention) they not only lack a no nonsense leader, they don’t have a talisman like the other clubs. Man City have Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, Liverpool have Mohamed Salah, Tottenham have Harry Kane, Chelsea have Eden Hazard. Zlatan Ibrahimović was the closest United got to a talisman, and he hasn’t been the same since last season, his only season in form at Old Trafford. He’s also 36 now.
Romelu Lukaku could be that go to option, and, ideally, his friendship and on-pitch chemistry with Pogba would form the core of United’s side for years to come. Lukaku is currently United’s leader on offense, with 26 goals in all competitions. He’s also become a more complete distributor of the ball. Lukaku’s offensive prowess is living up to expectations, but the team is still not good enough to compete with City. Though, to be fair, neither is Salah’s Liverpool, Kane’s Tottenham, or Hazard’s Chelsea.
Maybe it’s only a matter of time for this side. Maybe they just need time and everything will fit into place for a title run next season, but it’s getting to the point where fans are questioning the process. The loss to Sevilla exposed United as a side that doesn’t handle adversity or have players to take command. It has shaken the confidence of fans who were singing praises only days prior. Mourinho answered criticisms with a passionate press conference rant, but perhaps raised more questions than he answered about the direction of the club.
What is absolutely certain is United is still young and bringing in new players each season; Rashford (20), McTominay (21), Martial (22), Bailly (23), Lukaku (24), Pogba (25), Lingard (25). If Mourinho really is here for the long haul, for the “challenge,” He’s got the young talent to do it, but one or more needs to step up and take charge, especially when the going gets tough.