As Erik ten Hag settles down to the unenviable task of reviving Manchester United, it appears absolutely nothing is set in stone.
With an influx of summer arrivals likely and a whole lot of deadwood being cleared out, there could well be a very different complexion to the team come the start of the season.
And it also seems that Harry Maguire is by no means assured of wearing the captain’s armband for the campaign ahead.
Harry Maguire could be stripped of the Manchester United captaincy after a tricky year
Erik ten Hag has come in as United’s new manager and could introduce some drastic changes
As Sportsmail reported this week, United will keep the England international centre-back but he could well be relieved of the responsibility of leading the side.
It comes after a distinctly shaky 2021-22 season in which Maguire’s leadership and defensive qualities were repeatedly called into question.
He seemed to be profoundly affected by England’s penalty shoot-out loss to Italy in the final of the European Championship and his previously stellar form has collapsed.
Whether under the doomed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or the interim charge (and equally-doomed tenure) of Ralf Rangnick, the team looked vulnerable at the back and plenty of opponents took full advantage.
But if not captain Maguire, then who? We examine the candidates to take over the United captaincy, as well as the case for Maguire carrying on…
As United’s season lurched from one disaster to another last season, there was plenty of speculation that Ronaldo would replace the under-performing Maguire as skipper.
Even at the age of 37, the Portuguese star showed he can still cut it and ended up as United’s leading goalscorer with 24 after making a romantic return to Old Trafford.
Assuming he is willing to stay following United’s failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League, he would probably be the obvious person to toss the armband to.
Cristiano Ronaldo rallied the troops when he was United captain for the game against Wolves
For one thing, Ronaldo has captained his country for well over a decade and so fully understands the unique pressures and responsibilities of such a position.
Remember when he hobbled off early in the Euro 2016 final with France only to then effectively take charge of the team from the sidelines?
He served as stand-in captain when United played Wolves back in January and is certainly in whatever senior leadership group Ralf Rangnick had.
During his first spell at Old Trafford, after captaining the team in a March 2008 match against Bolton, Ronaldo said: ‘It’s always good to be captain of this massive club.
Ronaldo has worn the armband for his country Portugal for over a decade now
‘For me, it’s an honour, a pleasure. But my responsibility is still the same. Not because I’m captain do I change my game, my personality.’
Even then, Ronaldo was totally unfazed by the added burden on his shoulders. Given what he has accomplished in the game since, he would certainly wear the armband lightly now.
That personality also lends itself naturally to being a leader of men. Ronaldo leads the dressing room by example by the intensity of his training and the way he looks after himself.
Ten Hag could use him to set an example to the younger players in his squad and to set the highest standards of professionalism around the club.
Ronaldo’s goals rescued United from a far worse season and he would lead by example
We already heard how many of Ronaldo’s team-mates started declining a dessert after their meals in the club canteen – just because he did.
The drawback, of course, is there would be a lack of continuity. Ronaldo may have another year on his United contract, plus the option of another one, but he isn’t going to be around forever and another captain would have to be appointed.
DAVID DE GEA
The Spanish goalkeeper was one of the few United players to emerge with any credit following their shambles of a season – a statement it feels has been written several times over the past few years.
De Gea was voted United’s Players’ Player of the Year last season for the fourth time, surely an acknowledgment by his team-mates of how many times he bailed them out with world-class saves.
He would definitely be captain material, holding the respect of both the players and supporters. He’s also one of the longest-serving in the dressing room, having signed in 2011, and despite all those nearly-moves to Real Madrid, you can’t really question his commitment now.
David de Gea was brutally honest about United’s many shortcomings during 2021-22
The Spanish keeper was let down by his leaky backline on far too many occasions last season
It’s why when De Gea says he feels ’embarrassed’ and ‘horrible’ when United are four-nil down to Brighton, you know his comments come from the heart.
His brutal honesty about United’s low ebb last season was refreshing and in contrast to the dull platitudes put out by many players.
You sense De Gea, one of the few in the dressing room to have won a Premier League title with United, is really feeling the pain when they barely scrape into a Europa League spot.
There is a school of thought that keepers shouldn’t be captains, a feeling that the nature of their positions means they can’t influence matters as much on the pitch.
But given how De Gea has rescued this side from greater embarrassment so often, and how his affection for the club is genuine, he wouldn’t be a bad choice.
Deserves consideration as the main creative influence of the United side and, therefore, a player of importance and seniority.
Fernandes, by his sky-high standards, endured a frustrating 2021-22 season and the abiding image is of him flapping his arms in exasperation as attacking moves broke down, or remonstrating with a team-mate or the officials.
Nonetheless, the Portuguese scored 10 goals and contributed a further 14 assists and though these figures were lower than his previous campaigns for United, he is arguably a victim of his own success.
Bruno Fernandes took the captain’s armband when Maguire was unavailable last season
His leadership credentials are shown by the fact he played pretty much every game for United and is regarded as one of the first names on the team-sheet.
He was also vice-captain and so took the armband when Maguire was unavailable, as he did in 11 matches for United last season. So going by the hierarchy, it should really be Fernandes if it isn’t Maguire.
Fernandes certainly would be able to influence the outcome of matches – and in a considerable way – but you could argue that the burden of the permanent captaincy could be a distraction from what he does best.
Fernandes cut a frustrated and often tetchy figure during a disappointing season for United
Would the fear of greater criticism stifle him when it comes to playing those trademark passes that maybe only come off 25 per cent of the time but are spectacularly effective when they do?
Maybe if United can bring in another midfielder so Fernandes could share the creative load – they have been linked with Christian Eriksen – then he could take over the armband.
No doubt Fernandes would be willing to do the job.
If you’re going to go down the homegrown route when it comes to the next captain, midfielder McTominay would be the most obvious pick.
The Scot is a grafter and you can rarely fault his commitment to the cause, plus United have had the likes of Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Michael Carrick lead the team from midfield in the past.
But it’s by no means guaranteed that McTominay will play as many matches in the season ahead as in recent campaigns.
Midfielder Scott McTominay could be a homegrown option to take over as United captain
It’s hardly the greatest endorsement that Ten Hag is prioritising an upgrade on McTominay in the defensive midfield position and wants Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong, a player he knows well.
If United do reach an accord with Barcelona for the Dutchman, and it could well cost them £70million, then he’s going to play in that role.
Ten Hag may play two holding players in certain games, so McTominay would compete with Fred for the other position, but he has been known to play a ‘double 8’ and one anchor behind them.
De Jong is the far better ball-player in comparison to McTominay and so is likely to be chosen. The fact McTominay probably won’t be playing as often would tend to rule him out of being captain.
But Ten Hag’s pursuit of Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong may limit McTominay’s game-time
It was a very difficult first year for Varane, who must have often wondered what on earth he’d got himself in for having swapped Real Madrid’s serial winners for United’s bumbling underachievers.
As his old club won the Champions League yet again, his new one never looked remotely likely to challenge for anything and the shock of dropped standards was mentioned by Rio Ferdinand this week.
But given the Frenchman is one of the few serial winners in the United dressing room – with four Champions League titles, three Spanish leagues and the World Cup in his collection – he could potentially lead by example.
Raphael Varane knows exactly what is required to win the highest honours in football
Varane and Maguire did show the green shoots of a potentially-solid central defensive pairing
From his experiences with Real and France, Varane knows full well what is required to challenge for the top honours and could set the standard.
He also has experience of captaining both his former club and his country in the odd games in the past.
But would it be odd switching the armband from one half of a defensive partnership to the other? Would it create a friction and resentment that ultimately just undermines the team?
Whatever Ten Hag decides, one positive entering the new season is that Maguire and Varane did often look solid when paired together at the heart of the defence.
In 15 games together, United lost just twice and conceded less than a goal per game.
This sounds like a wildcard option but it might just work. Marcus Rashford is a footballer in need of a lift and perhaps leading the club has loved his entire life could provide it.
Chastened by his missed penalty in the Euro final and the abhorrent abuse that followed it, Rashford started last season late after having shoulder surgery.
A month after he returned to action, Ole Gunner Solskjaer was sacked and United were in crisis. A peripheral figure in far too many games, he mustered just five goals all season, by far his worst return for the club.
Marcus Rashford will be determined to return to form after his struggles last season
Rashford scores against Atalanta in the Champions League – one of just five goals last season
Rashford has been working hard with a personal trainer during his summer holidays to hit the ground running under Ten Hag, whose intricate man management could be just what the forward needs.
It’s unlikely Rashford will have a repeat of last season and he has the added motivation of trying to win back his England place in time for the World Cup.
His love for the club means he’d surely be willing to accept the duty of being their captain but there is always the fear the added scrutiny and pressure may crush his confidence even further.
STICK WITH MAGUIRE
Or Ten Hag could keep the status quo and Maguire carries on.
The England defender was criticised for both his on-field performances and his leadership skills last season but the two can often go hand-in-hand.
He needs to get his confidence back and return to the high standards he showed in 2020-21 and in the European Championship.
United fans will be hoping to see more of a happy Harry Maguire in the season ahead
Playing alongside one or both of Varane and a possible new signing like Jurrien Timber or Lisandro Martinez could help compensate for some of the deficiencies in his game.
Maguire clearly finds the criticism stinging, takes the social media abuse to heart, and will be determined to make amends.
Ten Hag can restore his confidence by publicly backing him as captain early on and hope that will translate into a better season to make all the debate over his leadership disappear.