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What’s in an armband?: Evolution of Captaincy and Harry Maguire

Suwaid dives into the philosophy and practice of captains in the modern game...

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A fish rots from the head down. Manchester United’s one of the biggest fishes around. This fish looks very different heading into the 2022/23 season. It’s got a new CEO, a Director of Football with greater powers, a new manager, but the same captain. For many Manchester United fans, the fish will never change as long as the Glazer family is its head.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to presume that Manchester United’s captain, Harry Maguire, has confronted more animosity from its fans in the last 12 months than every person associated with the club that isn’t the Glazer family. The new manager, Erik ten Hag, has made it clear on multiple occasions in his duties to the media that Harry Maguire will be his captain for the 2022/23 season. The manager has more recently expressed that this is something he has to dictate.

Harry Maguire endured his worst season as a professional footballer last season. He wasn’t the only one but as the captain of the club, he was viewed by many as the head responsible for the rot. The rot started for Maguire in a jittery performance against his former club; a 4-2 loss that many believe betokened the end for the man who handed him the captaincy. The layers were starting to crumble.

After two years of top-4 finishes and near misses in some of the cups, the hero of ’99, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, was sacked a few months after being rewarded with a three-year deal. The man who appointed him and had taken the brunt of the criticism for the post-Ferguson fugue state, Ed Woodward, was seeing to his final days as CEO at the time.

John Murtough, the new Director of Football, was now tasked with making his first big decision. He decided to wait until the end of the summer to hire the permanent boss after some exhaustive research and round of interviews with some of Europe’s best available managers. In the meantime, he’d appointed Ralf Rangnick as the interim manager with an additional two-year consultancy role promised to the German following the interim period.

Manchester United had moved from the idealist in Solskjaer to the ideologue in Rangnick. The thing about ideas is when they drift, you tend to drift with them. Where Solskjaer seemed subservient to those with authority, Rangnick seemed keen on establishing some that he could never attain. It was recently reported that John Murtough kept a glacial distance from his first appointment, occupying himself with bringing the next man in during the torrid final months of last season.

There was unmistakably a power vacuum at Manchester United for much of last season. What started as a crack was breached and then exposed by what some would call a big fish in its own right; one that was a product of our original fish and considered by many as its brightest ever.

Cristiano Ronaldo had become king of the seas in his 13 years away from our withering fish. To everyone but Manchester United, Ronaldo remained the golden fish from his youth. This ailing fish was unaware that the golden fish was losing its shine and vigour in the last couple of seasons — that the golden fish was no longer king.

The hysteria around this ceremonial reunion lasted a few weeks before the cracks started unfolding. What it unfolded into was the worst season for Manchester United in the Premier League era.

We’ll get to Cristiano Ronaldo a little later, however, that little recap suggests that the captaincy situation at Manchester United might be a bit trivial in the larger scheme of things in our tale; schisms in the dressing room and other pressing issues need sorting and urgently. But we all know that nothing surrounding Manchester United is ever trivial.

Before we get down to the matter of Manchester United’s captain, there’s a conversation to be had about who the head is, what the captain’s responsibilities in professional sport and football even are, and if it is as significant today as it was in the days of Keane and Robbo.

Those seem to be the larger questions, so let’s attempt to answer all of them.

Who is the head? And if it isn’t the captain, does it really matter?

The mention of United gives it away but if you are still in doubt, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who said that. We did a series of polls the other day and most of you voted for the manager as the most important figure in a club’s hierarchy. The widely held belief in football is that a good manager will win your team more games and a great one will win you the big trophies. Sir Alex Ferguson was as great as they come but he believed that his influence only went so far.

Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper have made a compelling case in the book Soccernomics that the wage bills in club football are the biggest factor towards a league finish, that there’s a 90% correlation between the two and the manager accounts for very little as far as league positions are concerned.

You’re probably shaking your head now. So, to get you back onside, I can assure you that they also mention that Sir Alex Ferguson was among the 10% where this didn’t apply.

Another ex-Manchester United manager, David Moyes, made the cut (from his time at Everton). According to a piece in The Economist from 2019, Jose Mourinho did not make the cut nor did Carlo Ancelotti, but Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone did.

Let’s accept for a minute that only a few managers make any real difference. Let’s also accept that the one whose word we take as gospel is right and that his influence was limited. Could someone else be more influential?

Well, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Walker has written a book on what the secret ingredient is in the greatest sports teams. We’ll get to the book’s name after this paragraph but like Szymanski and Kuper, his extensive study also concludes that a Lombardi, Popovich and Ferguson aren’t the differentiators for the greatest sports teams of all time. He goes a step further and states that the services of a GOAT, the overall talent of a team, money and a winning culture aren’t the differentiators either.

His book is called The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates The World’s Greatest Teams.

This was also something stated by the great elder of Old Trafford.

Something’s not adding up here. Even if you were a traditionalist who does not believe captaincy in sport to merely be an honorific title, you probably don’t believe the value of a good captain in a team sports supersedes the value of a manager, the culture of the team, the talent on disposal and the money it can spend.

And even if you do, you’re probably aware that it does not have the merit it once had because the tasks undertaken by a captain are minimal today. Even in a sport like cricket, where the captain was once seen as the tactician, manager and disciplinarian, the tasks at hand are limited compared to what they once used to be. Head coaches and directors are taking up many of the responsibilities that were once undertaken by the captain and the mystique is dying.

The Telegraph’s Tig Wigmore, who recently co-wrote Crickonomics: The Anatomy of Modern Cricket with Stefan Szymanski, had made the case for the same a few years ago for ESPNcricinfo.

When the legendary West Indies cricket team of the ‘70s and early ‘80s speak of their captain Clive Lloyd, the greatest praise is saved for his man management. Man management from a captain? That’s unheard of in football and most other sports. If a sport like cricket is unsure of the value a captain adds, football stands no chance.

In Roy Keane’s first autobiography, we hardly get any new information on how his roles and responsibilities might’ve changed after getting the armband or if there were any new responsibilities at all. We actually do get a few pages where he covers the mundanity of having to get tickets for his teammates and their families but not much else. It was business as usual.

In The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion, Richard Gillis makes the strongest argument for the mythmaking and outcome bias that stories of captaincy in sport are particularly susceptible to. Gillis labels it an attribution error, using the Ryder Cup to make his case. According to Gillis, the Ryder Cup is the sporting event where the value of captaincy is most exaggerated.

Here’s a little extract from Gillis’ interview with

To fuel his arguments, he interviews quite a few former captains. Well, if the captains themselves don’t seem to think they’re that influential, why should we?

But it’s Manchester United

Myth-busting’s great but that’s not the point of these varied arguments. These arguments aren’t there to draw a line between the traditionalists and progressives. Leadership exists and good leadership is valuable to every sports team. None of the research undertaken on sports teams is attempting to devalue the role that management, culture, money, talent and captaincy play in forming a successful team.

The studies are attempting to find out what the driving factors are to winning games and trophies in all sports but they have to do this in a way that grinds a few gears because we often take the wrong lessons from the most successful sides.

What the Captain Class proposes is that the unifying factor in the very best sports teams of all time was a specific kind of leader.

These are the traits of an effective leader highlighted in Walker’s book:

  • Extreme doggedness and focus in competition.
  • Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules.
  • A willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows.
  • A low-key, practical, and democratic communication style.
  • Motivate others with passionate nonverbal displays.
  • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart.
  • Ironclad emotional control.

Roy Keane, the most successful captain in Manchester United’s history, had all of these qualities bar the last one. Yet, the masses tend to celebrate his lack of emotional control and outbursts of violence far more than they do the other traits, often doing a disservice to his incredible legacy as a footballer and a leader.

This isn’t limited to personalities in sports. Martin Scorsese’s monstrous characters are artistic expressions of guilt and redemption as understood in Catholicism; they convey that even the most deranged and loathsome person can display flashes of humanity. You wouldn’t be wrong to think that it’s concerning how often his protagonists are interpreted by terrifyingly large sections of the public as hyper-masculine role models. We seem to be doing the same with our sports personalities.

Buckets full of charisma, stirring speeches and macho aggression are great for the sports pages but they don’t make for good leadership. Like Keane, Michael Jordan was another leading sports figure from the ‘90s, the greatest athlete of the era and possibly all time. In Walker’s book, we learn that the Bulls’ success occurred after Bill Cartwright was made co-captain of the Chicago Bulls. Cartwright exhibited the traits listed earlier and the team responded to them. Jordan himself acknowledged Cartwright’s contributions.

There were calls for Cristiano Ronaldo to get the armband last season because of his experience leading the Portuguese national team. Ronaldo has three of the seven traits at most but he evidently doesn’t have most of the traits listed earlier and that’s fine.

For Portugal, his former Real Madrid teammate Pepe demonstrated most of the characteristics that Walker encourages in the same way that Javier Mascherano did for Lionel Messi’s career with the Argentinian national team. The best players like Jordan and Ronaldo don’t make for the best leaders and they can sometimes even be toxic to the rest of the team because of their uncompromising ambition.

The question we need to ask ourselves regarding Harry Maguire is whether he has these leadership traits and if he doesn’t, is there someone else at Manchester United who does? Maguire seems to have most of them but he doesn’t seem to have them all. The traits that he does display don’t seem to be displayed with the sort of conviction that someone like Roy Keane presented them with, which weakens his case further. Does vice-captain, Bruno Fernandes, display these traits? We know the answer to that by now.

Harry Maguire was certainly handed the captaincy prematurely. He’s still learning what it’s like to be a Manchester United player, never mind a captain. This is his first pre-season tour since joining the club in 2019. All the great literature on this subject posits that great leaders aren’t born; they’re developed and moulded. It takes time.

United’s new manager, Erik ten Hag, seems to have these traits and with the sort of conviction that someone like Maguire doesn’t. But Erik ten Hag’s a manager, there are some traits he simply can’t showcase.

In the last Overlap panel, Gary Neville revealed that an inferiority complex compelled him to feel like he wasn’t qualified to take the armband from Roy Keane. Many Liverpool fans probably felt the same way about Jordan Henderson taking it from Steven Gerrard before Jurgen Klopp’s arrival. Any dissenting opinion from the fans and players regarding the holder of the armband gets quelled when fans trust the managers absolutely, which was the case for Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and has been the case for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool.

Erik ten Hag’s job going forward is to empower and nurture the beneficial leadership attributes and curb the destructive attributes that his players currently possess until he buys players who might be more suited to captaincy going forward.

We think Frenkie de Jong will make his way to Old Trafford and be synonymous with Ten Hag’s project. He might bring some of these traits but doesn’t seem fully equipped for the armband either. Lisandro Martinez seems to offer many of these traits but like Maguire, his first task is to become an effective member of this team. The Argentine has no reason to conceal his traits. You don’t need the armband to become a forceful leader.

We shall find out soon enough what happens in future seasons but Ten Hag has made his decision for the 2022/23 season. In our recent podcast, The Athletic’s Carl Anka spoke about getting buy-in from the football club’s entorno. We remain the most important section of the entorno. Booing Harry Maguire undermines the manager. In our recent community poll, the overwhelming majority voted that they trust Erik ten Hag. Do we really?

If the captaincy is something he dictates, we must trust him. Get behind him and get behind Harry Maguire.