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Manchester United’s captaincy and misguided nostalgia

A lot is wrong with the captaincy talk around United…

Manchester United v Middlesbrough: The Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Photo by Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images

When there’s a lack of success or identity in the modern-day and there’s still the desire to have them, you either resort to a time when you had it all or work towards getting all that in the future. In some ways, Manchester United are stuck in the middle of that and in this case, it isn’t a case of them falling into the ‘Golden Mean’ area. And the recent debate about the club’s captaincy finds roots in how the club is still stuck in the past, while constantly using references from a golden time to succeed in a completely different era in 2022.

There’s too many contradictions at the club today and you can come across them at every step of the way. One part of the many contradictions present the viewpoint of modernisation and moving on from a glorious past by being a unit on the pitch in the truest sense of the word and matching the other evolving giants of the game by being proactive and not reactive. United are yet to be all that and they remain a club of individuals, making fans focus on individual errors and intangible attributes, while being left behind by units like Liverpool and Manchester City.

And this isn’t just today’s truth. United truly became a mismanaged club of individuals when Wayne Rooney was handed a massive new deal back in the 2013/14 season, months after Sir Alex Ferguson had lost interest in keeping him at the club in the 2012/13 season. Fergie was not just an excellent man-manager, but he was also exceptional at keeping a certain tactical ego aside to adapt and to tailor tactical approaches to the demands of superstars - if there were any.

For about two years, that is somewhat similar to what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer did too, as he often tailored the approach to fit the strengths of certain players and kept certain political issues in the background in a rather diplomatic way. It was an embrace of what Man United are in the current era and a rather temporary attempt at managed politics, which was not going to last long considering the increasingly political club that United have become - almost like Paris Saint-Germain with an English taste. In some ways, Daniel James’ abrupt sale was quite a fair reflection of that.

It isn’t as if talk of dressing room issues never came about under Solskjaer but they are much more public now, almost bordering on the lines of insanity and content for ‘The Office’. It would be easy to dismiss these as issues that come about due to lack of wins, as they have become public even in the event of wins. Not all of what is reported is true, certainly. But for a club which has stopped being a true unit, there will inevitably be focus on intangibles of players - especially those who haven’t played well this season and those who have been a hallmark for the intangibles in their careers. Mentioning names isn’t the point of this article.

The very mention of captaincy brings about nostalgic verbiage about Roy Keanes, Nemanja Vidics and Bryan Robsons. And that is completely fine because those players deserve the credit of being the imprint of leadership at a club like United. But to expect characters of that ilk to be evoked in the robotic, filtered and sanitised football of 2022 is extremely unfair on the players. It isn’t as if the current Man United captain hasn’t bled from his head or hasn’t taken painkilling injections to play through hip injuries but football’s obsession with this overtly masculine definition of leadership is only fueled by the already toxic world of social media. Or by the fairytale world of nostalgia and the obsession with it because of United’s increasingly identity-less state.

More than that, football, in many ways, has become a game where the real action truly takes place in the background - especially for an increasingly frenetic club like United. It is steeped in the need for PR and protection of image- as we saw in the summer transfer window. What we see on the pitch or on the club’s social media is a mere fraction of the truth or sometimes the opposite of the truth. We are left to judge from very little or from the other side of the coin.

For United, in an almost politically divisive manner, there are always at least two parties. And the same issue has crept into the captaincy issue - which shouldn’t even be a massive issue. But considering the context of the era, football and the club, it seems to have become one. That, in a nutshell, is sadly a reflection of United in 2022.