When the line-up for Manchester United’s 3-0 win over Sunderland was announced, the biggest shock was the omission of goalkeeper David de Gea.
Once the initial worries that the Spaniard’s absence was related to Real Madrid transfer speculation were put to bed when Jose Mourinho confirmed the goalkeeper had a hip injury and would return for the next Premier League game, eyes were drawn to another surprise.
When glancing through the rest of the players, United supporters were alarmed to see that Marouane Fellaini had been named captain. With Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Chris Smalling all out of the starting XI – either through injury or rest ahead of Thursday’s Europa League clash with Anderlecht – Mourinho had called upon Fellaini to wear the armband, much to the horror of some of the club’s fans.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ander Herrera both available – and both superior leaders and footballers – there seemed little sense in making Fellaini the team’s captain.
“Are you joking?” was the reaction of Jamie Redknapp when he was told the news on Sky Sports ahead of kick-off. That summed it up.
United supporters enjoyed singing songs about Sunderland’s impending relegation as payback for their celebration of Manchester City’s dramatic title triumph in 2012, and David Moyes probably took some satisfaction in seeing the man he brought to Old Trafford deemed worthy of the captaincy by Mourinho.
Fellaini played well against Sunderland – although that was not hard, given how awful Moyes’ team are and the fact that they went down to 10 men in the first half. It is, however, difficult to argue that it was a captain’s performance; Fellaini, put simply, does not boast the leadership or motivation skills required for the role.
Having said that, when you look at United’s current squad, or any of their squads since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, the lack of suitable captains is astonishing.
United’s legendary manager used to be spoiled for choice when it came to choosing a skipper. His final team featured Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher, among others. His previous sides included the likes of Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Gary Neville and Steve Bruce.
United’s current squad does not boast any players of that calibre. Rooney is the current captain and Carrick the vice-captain, with Smalling next in line. They are all English, which presumably counts for something in the eyes of certain managers, and have been at the club the longest, but they are hardly the type of people you would follow into battle.
To Rooney’s credit he has grown into the role, having initially believed that being captain meant he was just supposed to shout at team-mates for making mistakes. But while his experience and passion make him a better candidate than most, he is still lagging behind the great captains of the game, and his failing body only further damages his claim to the role.
Rooney will likely leave in the summer and Carrick could also depart after his testimonial, which means Mourinho may have to put in place a new permanent captain. The concern, judging from his decision on Sunday, is that the manager has a problem in identifying a proper leader.
Smalling is not good enough to start for United and has the leadership abilities of a wet sponge, yet this apparently does not rule him out. If Fellaini is next in line, it would without doubt be the worst captain and vice-captain partnership the club has ever had.
The man Mourinho should be looking to is Herrera. The Spanish midfielder has plenty of fight and passion. He gets stuck in when United play rivals Liverpool and Manchester City. He does not go missing. He works hard every minute he is on the pitch. He loves football and he loves playing for United.
As well as making all the right moves on the field, he is a strong candidate off it too. When sitting on the substitutes’ bench, he has often been seen going potty when United have scored important goals. He charged onto the turf following Rooney’s late winner at Anfield last season, for instance, and was seen banging against the dugout after Bastian Schweinsteiger’s late winner at Watford.
As a result, he is adored by the fans, who have created a chant in his honour. The feeling, it seems, is mutual.
“I feel very appreciated by the United fans and want to give the love back to the fans that they give to me by giving everything,” he told the United programme a few months ago.
“I know what Manchester United means, I know what it means to the fans and I try to make them proud.”
On the road to their EFL Cup win, United knocked out rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford. Herrera’s comments after the game perfectly encapsulate why he should be the player Mourinho picks to lead the team out next season.
“When you are a Manchester United player and you know the history of this club, you have to respect the games that are for the fans. I feel it like them… I know I am not English and I am not from Manchester, but I really love this club,” he told MUTV.
Moyes failed to sign him and Louis van Gaal failed to appreciate him. Mourinho has made the correct decision in making Herrera an important part of the United team, but now he must go one step further and appoint him captain.