There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth around Old Trafford on Tuesday night after the home side were knocked out of the Champions League by Atlético Madrid. The contrasting fortunes of the two clubs was encapsulated in a few minutes towards the end of the second half. With ten minutes remaining Atlético’s captain Jorge Koke was substituted. Having run himself into the ground, the Spaniard epitomised Simeone’s indefatigable side, neat in possession, always probing and exuding a sense of control. His handing of the armband to Jan Oblak was a lesson in game management, taking a couple of minutes out of the game as he walked slowly over to his keeper and then ambled off the pitch, head held high on the cusp of a precious victory.
Four minutes later United also replaced their skipper but this was no triumphant farewell to proceedings. Harry Maguire looked crestfallen and confused as he waved the armband in the air, more a poisoned chalice than an honour, with the recipient almost reluctant to take on the responsibility for the rest of the game. The fact that United’s central defender was replaced by Juan Mata was a symbol of desperation for Ralph Rangnick’s men. In contrast to Koke’s withdrawal, this seemed a confused, rather baffling almost defeatist decision by the German. Such confusion was also evident earlier when Maguire clashed heads with Cristiano Ronaldo as they were both about to attack a free-kick at the far post, managing to put each other off and leaving both players shaking their heads in pain and disappointment.
Maguire has attracted a fair amount of opprobrium from United’s supporters as they face yet another season without a trophy to show for their efforts, and there was even a murmur of ironic cheering when he came off. To a certain extent this is justified as he has not been the dominant character that they thought they had signed from Leicester in August 2019 for £80 million, a record transfer for a defender. He should not have to shoulder all the blame for United’s lack of success but as captain he does have an added responsibility to lead and with his team often appearing rudderless when under pressure, that leadership has been sadly lacking from the England international.
Tuesday night’s stark contrast opens up a debate on the role of captains in football. Compared to cricket, where the skipper is continuously making strategic decisions such as who should be bowling, setting the right field, making the right declaration, in football the managers and coaches are primarily responsible for tactics. One could argue that a football captain’s principal responsibility starts and ends with the toss of the coin and the choice of ends.
The skipper is more of a figurehead than the brains behind the operations but can be highly influential in his attitude during the match, the classic trait of leading by example. Think Patrick Vieira. Vieira led Arsenal’s Invincibles in 2003/04, he was the driving force of the team, the dominant player who stood up and was counted on numerous occasions, especially when Wenger’s team were up against it. As Wenger acknowledged – “He didn’t hide from anybody, and the more you gave him, the stronger he became.”
As Palace’s manager, Vieira has rotated the captaincy with Luka Milivojevic starting only eight of 29 Premier League matches and until recently the armband shared between three senior pros – Joel Ward, Wilfried Zaha and James MacArthur – the players with the most Premier League appearances for the club. In the last month 21 year-old Marc Guehi has captained the side and in so doing has become the youngest player to captain a Premier League club. Vieira is making plans for the future, and having already captained the England Under-21s, Guehi looks destined to become the club’s leader.
Milivojevic is not the only club captain who has had to watch the majority of this season’s games from the sidelines. Manchester City’s Fernandinho has only made thirteen league appearances, with seven of those as substitute. Like Vieira, Pep Guardiola has not directly replaced Fernandinho with Kevin De Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Ruben Dias all taking the armband in the last ten matches. And in his sixteenth season at West Ham, Mark Noble has been in just one starting line-up with Declan Rice taking over from the club stalwart, missing just two games.
There is some debate over which position best suits captaincy with defence or midfield the preferred option of 85% of the Premier League clubs. The argument is that these players are at the heart of the action whereas by the very nature of their roles strikers or goalkeepers are at the periphery. It is surely no coincidence that the two keepers who are captains, Kasper Schmeichel and Hugo Lloris, both hold the record Premier League appearances for their respective clubs, in a nod of respect to their loyalty and longevity.
Vieira’s old club Arsenal are the only Premier League club that has a forward as their captain. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started the season with the armband but things turned sour between the striker and Mikel Arteta, reaching a point of no return after a series of cases of ill discipline. This was clearly not a case of leading from the front and as a result Aubameyang was shunted off to Barcelona with his former strike partner Alexandre Lacazette taking over, but that very much feels like a temporary measure, a stop gap.
Ultimately, the question remains does it really matter who the captain is? If all the players know their roles in the side and are highly motivated then that is surely sufficient. Sir Alf Ramsey’s assessment of Bobby Moore would suggest otherwise – “My captain, my leader, my right-hand man. He was the spirit and the heartbeat of the team. A cool, calculating footballer I could trust with my life. He was the supreme professional, the best I ever worked with. Without him England would never have won the World Cup.”