Much has been written and said about Manchester United’s poor start to this season and in particular their shoddy defence. It is certainly true that United’s defence has been anything but watertight during the opening months of this campaign – shipping 5 goals to Leicester being the nadir. While Louis Van Gaal’s heavy investment in attacking players has garnered such attention, it should also be noted that the defence has also had money thrown at it. Luke Shaw joined for £27 million before LVG arrived, and he added Marcus Rojo and supposed defensively minded midfielder Daley Blind to the mix before the window slammed shut.
What United lack is not quality defenders – a back line of Shaw, Rojo, Evans and Rafael is not to be sniffed at, and with players such as Jones, Smalling and young star Paddy McNair in the wings it shouldn’t be an area of such concern. What they actually lack is a natural leader. Throughout this season, even during the victories over West Ham and Everton, the Red Devils have looked bereft of strong leadership. The type of spirit that Roy Keane or even Rio Ferdinand used to embody and lift other players with.
When talking of leaders at United, most will point to club captain and talisman Wayne Rooney. While Rooney is undoubtedly one of the most talented players of his generation and gives 100% for his side every time he steps on the pitch, he does not possess the inspirational skills of previous United leaders. Of course, the greatest leader Untied have ever had, never even kicked a ball for the side. The spectre of Sir Alex Ferguson has loomed large over Old Trafford since his retirement and it was perhaps his leadership from the sideline that allowed United to operate without an on field leader since the retirement of Roy Keane.
But back to Rooney, his leadership limitations were on display in the embarrassing fiasco at Leicester a few weeks ago. His answer to seeing his side gift the Foxes three quick goals, was to scream and shout and stamp his feet until his defence took notice. An assured leader need only look in the direction of his players to strike fear into their hearts. That is not to say that fear is the only quality of a leader, just that in that circumstance, a little fear may well have provoked a more positive response. Rooney is too emotionally volatile to take the mantle a real leader; the sort United need in this most difficult of times.
So who are the other candidates? I must be clear that I’m not necessarily advocating Rooney being stripped of the captaincy, just that another on field leader is required to complement Rooney’s style; preferably somebody from deeper on the pitch.
Daley Blind was signed with the hope that he would bring steel to the United midfield and shield a weak defence. Thus far, Blind has performed okay – but nothing better than that. Hopefully his late strike against West Brom can spur him on for the remainder of the campaign. While Blind may have had a reputation of being a midfield general in Holland, the Premier League is a completely different beast, and it is best to let him settle into the pace before he assumes more leadership.
United have used over 30 players already this season. This is symptomatic of their confused tactics in the opening months of the season. This high turnover of players is not conducive to finding a new on field leader either. Players are too busy trying to cement their own places in the side, without having to inspire others in the process. In reality, if everybody is fit, there are only 3 guaranteed starters in the United squad –Rooney, Di Maria and De Gea. Di Maria is in his first season and too valuable creatively to be burdened with leadership.
De Gea is an interesting case. He has visibly matured throughout the last three seasons and is the only United player who has seen his stock rise since the departure of Ferguson. It would be an ideal scenario to say that De Gea should assume more responsibility and guide his team through this rough patch, but he is still learning his game and United cannot afford for his form to drop, especially considering how busy he has been thus far this year.
In my opinion, the return of Michael Carrick is vital to United’s hope of a top four finish and installing some on-field leadership. The midfielder has yet to play this season due to injury but when fit, should be more than good enough to command a permanent starting place – perhaps alongside Blind in place of the hit and miss Hererra. Carrick posses all of the qualities to be the calm lieutenant to Rooney’s ranting and raving general. Understated, experienced and dependable; Carrick is the ideal man to drag United back from the brink. He has a wealth of United experience and trophies to fall back on and to demand respect from the younger players. In combination with vice-captain Darren Fletcher, Carrick is one of the few remaining players who learnt the United way under the watchful eye of Sir Alex, and the Red Devils will be champing at the bit to get Carrick back into their side.
While United lack leadership, the ranting Rooney aside, they are not without their merit. Their attacking play has been breath taking at times and they look capable of scoring at any moment. Nothing can be done to change personnel in a leaky defence until at least January but leadership can be installed from within. Perhaps Van Gaal needs to turn to the ‘old guard’ of Fletcher and Carrick to exert some old fashioned steely-eyed leadership.