Oh Captain, My Captain

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The hysteria surrounding the appointment of the ‘right’ captain, certainly in the context of the England national team, is a well known and often counter-productive phenomenon. The issue that has ‘plagued’ (and yes, it is an imagined malady) England’s senior side is one that most dismiss when the results are also consistently underwhelming; the feeling is that, when dullness and incoherence are the trademarks of any given campaign, contentions over the choice of captain are innocuous at best. I mean, in international football in general, the most time any nation’s team spends together is hardly ever more than a month or two, so selecting a single leader is always going to be slightly tokenistic. A lot of national teams simply make their best player the captain. It’s generally not something that causes much angst, in fact most countries look on at England’s pained tribulations over the captaincy and chuckle.

But in club football the act and consequences of handing out the captaincy carries much more currency. A team, over the seasons, becomes a unit, a group dependant on its own smooth and efficient running, so it makes perfect sense that a player, often one essential to the team, ought to be given the responsibility of marshalling the others. Rarely have successful teams’ captains had inconsequential impacts on their teams’ success; the Manchester United/Arsenal rivalry of the late 1990s and early 2000’s was as much defined (or at least symbolised) by the individual battle waged between Roy Keane and Patrick Viera, as it was by the battle between the two teams. Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard, arguably to the detriment of the team on the field, has recently commanded so much reverence because of his role as captain. Remember the footage of his battle-cry after the win over Manchester City last season, when Liverpool still had hopes of ending their title drought. He had all the troops around him listening with boyish adoration, hoisting them up, along with every Liverpool fan watching, with his Scouser-tinged words of inspiration. In the end it was his comical slip, which gifted Chelsea a key goal, that will be remembered as the enduring image of Liverpool’s agonizing stumble at the final hurdle. Up until his departure, Nemanja Vidic was an automatic selection and a tireless inspiration in the Manchester United defence, which alone justified his captaincy, not unlike Vincent Kompany presently at Manchester City. Of course, with Vidic now at Inter, Louis van Gaal needs to pick a new captain, and has just yesterday announced that Wayne Rooney will wear the armband this season. There are Manchester United fans who will feel very unsure about this selection, such is the history of Rooney’s relationship with the club. But does the choice of captain matter as much as people think?

Recently, in England at least, the most unusual captaincy situation existed at Arsenal. The London club has been damagingly obsessed with the question of who should be the captain ever since Viera left. When you really look at it, the string of players who have been given the armband, only to leave soon after, is quite astounding. Viera left for Juventus in 2005, and Thierry Henry was made captain. Henry left in 2007 for Barcelona, so William Gallas was made captain. Before he left for Tottenham, Gallas was stripped of the captaincy in 2008, and it was given to Cesc Fabregas. Fabregas left for Barca in 2011, and the armband was handed to Robin van Persie, who left for Manchester United in 2012. Thomas Vermaelen was made club captain after van Persie left, but was left in a strange situation when he was dropped from the starting line up. Mikel Arteta was stand in captain in Vermaelen’s bench-enforced absence, and just this week Vermaelen left for, you guessed it, Barcelona. Arsenal’s lack of a consistent captain has often been mooted, quite sensationally at times, as a reason for their lack of success in the league, outside of consistent Champions League qualification. And the way that, as an example, Arsenal capitulated after having a man sent off against Chelsea last season, a game they eventually lost 6-0, might indicate that a lack of a true leader, a character capable of pulling the team together in a crisis is a real issue for Arsene Wenger’s side.

But what kind of player makes for the ideal captain? Let’s look at some clubs around Europe. City’s Kompany is the archetypal captain; a leader, a defender, both physically and mentally strong, the motivator who leads thoroughly by example. He is undoubtedly their most important defender, arguably their most important player. In the 12/13 season, City averaged 2.11 points per game with Kompany on the pitch. In the 12 games he was injured that season, their return dropped to 1.91 points per game. He joins some of the great defensive captains in European football; Adams at Arsenal, Puyol at Barca, Zanetti at Inter, Baresi and Maldini at Milan, Beckenbauer and Lahm at Bayern. The defence is the area that requires the most constant organisation, the most vigilance, so it fits that the dominant personalities that excel there also make excellent captains. But it’s not always this way, plenty of captains reside areas other than defence.

Obviously Viera and Keane are worth mentioning again. Both were emblematic of the rivalry that crackled between their two clubs, both clashing with one another in midfield. Alan Shearer led Newcastle, and England, from the front, proving so popular among the fans as captain, his dropping single-handedly led to Ruud Gullit’s sacking. Raul captained Real Madrid’s Galacticos for 7 years, albeit to relatively little silverware. Francesco Totti has become a veritable god among men in Italy’s capital while leading Roma. Totti alone shows that a captain doesn’t have to be a workhorse as well, that hard graft isn’t the only way to set an example. Bayern and Germany’s Lahm shows that you don’t have to shout the loudest to command respect either. Goalkeepers too have a respectable history of sporting the armband, Iker Casillas and Oliver Kahn being the most prominent examples, if currently defunct through disuse and retirement respectively.

The trials of Casillas at Real Madrid can be read in different ways; he started only 2 league games last season, manager Carlo Ancelotti preferring Diego Lopez in the Spanish Primera. Casillas was the first choice in Europe however, and was integral to Real’s long awaited la decima. As Real’s league form tailed off, rather inexplicably, and some odd losses to inferior opposition curbed their hopes for a double, they soared in Europe. Was this simply because of Casillas’s presence between the sticks? It would be a little outlandish to assume this. Still, almost zero playing time outside of Champions League ties must have affected Casillas’s aura as the long-time club captain. A horrendous World Cup with Spain has cast major doubts over his ability, so much so that Ancelotti has brought Keylor Navas in as a possible replacement. Many assumed that once Mourinho finally left Madrid, that Casillas’s banishment would end; let’s not forget he was one of the best keepers in the world just a few seasons ago. But Ancelotti seemed unconcerned with the task of bringing the club captain back into the fray after the ordeal that was Jose’s final season.

Situations where clubs stand by their captains at any cost are common, the support Chelsea offered John Terry in the wake of his racial abuse scandal being a prime example. Of course, unwavering support can have significant fallout as well, and the perception that a player is wielding too much influence can be a damaging one. Plenty of managers have succumbed to ‘player power’, have angered key individuals and lost the dressing room, and have been ousted by the very men selected to lead on the pitch. This is a perilous gap that managers have to straddle; you want a powerful voice wearing the armband, someone who can wrestle control of the team and carry out your instructions, but not a player who will abuse that power, who will use it against you. Terry, along with other senior Chelsea players, was reportedly a key factor in the downfall of Andre Villas Boas who, in his mid-thirties, was only a few years older than Terry himself.

So will Rooney make a good Manchester United captain? Will he live up to the legends of the last United striker/captains Cantona and Charlton? Evidently, there is no set design for the perfect club captain; a successful captain’s playing position, work rate and attitude can vary greatly without affecting his ability to lead. Handing out the captaincy is always a gamble. Louis van Gaal is a vastly experienced manager and he has faith enough in Rooney to succeed as captain, more than he has in the player he made his Holland captain, Robin van Persie. Anyway, United have a laundry list of problems to solve and the captaincy is low on that list. Most people have a desire to lead, only some can handle the responsibility that comes with it, and even fewer have the burden of leadership thrust upon them. It’s fascinating to watch because of how unpredictable the outcome will be. Maybe the captaincy will turn Rooney into the true United hero that he’s always been touted to become. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s all nonsense.

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