Manchester United Captaincy Under Scrutiny, AGAIN!
In the light of recent inconsistent results, the Manchester United captaincy is being called into question again. Just when the team was starting to put the memories of last season behind them, recent performances, mainly the Liverpool game, brought everyone back down to earth.
The Red Devils have been less than convincing since the 2-2 draw against Leeds back in early February. Since then United have drawn Leeds, Barcelona, and Southampton. United also looked particularly vulnerable and off the pace in the first half’s against West Ham, the Real Betis first leg, the Barcelona second leg, and Fulham in the FA cup.
Were it not for spectacular second half performances in each of these games, United looked in serious danger. And had Fulham not completely self destructed, United were looking at being knocked out of the FA Cup.
But the truly terrifying indictment against Manchester United was the 7-0 loss to Liverpool. The media and the fans want someone to blame for this dip in form. And they seem to have found their man in Bruno Fernandes.
Erik ten Hag is Still in the Building Process
The teams recent high profile speed bumps are simply the most recent crumb of ridicule the prime time punditry has used to assume license to tear apart every minute detail of United’s performances. The only Red Devil devoid of scrutiny has been Erik ten Hag.
His candid transparency has been refreshing. While the results this season have surpassed expectation to such an extent that, ten Hag would seem nigh infallible. Even in the wake of such a shaky run of games, it is the players being called out in the papers and online, not the manager.
The chain of command in a football team dictates that Bruno now publicly shoulder the shame of United’s digression.
Is Bruno Worthy of the Manchester United Captaincy
Even the most devout Manchester United fan must admit that some of Bruno’s worst traits surfaced in the 7-0 loss to Liverpool. There is also no denying that in a game where United are suffering so much, that the captain needs to do more to keep the team from completely crumbling as they did.
In isolation, the Liverpool game fuels almost any argument against Bruno as United captain. It would seem that Bruno’s digression has been getting easier to call out since that Leeds game. But all failures need to be weighed with context because leadership, in the real world, is hardly weighed in isolation.
It is no secret that Bruno is a player that thrives when harnessing his passion and anger. That is his superpower as a player. Unfortunately, under Erik ten Hag, Bruno has been forced to embrace premature leadership. As a result he has had to suppress his superpowers for the sake of the team, and his roll as leader.
Manchester United Stifling Captains Since Roy Keane
This is not to say that ten Hag is wrong. In fact, results throughout most of the season would suggest the contrary.
However, think of all the years we United fans rued the array of ways in which Sir Alex Ferguson utilized Wayne Rooney. Rooney was a true leader, in the vein of Charlton, Keane, Bruce or Robson. He was versatile to a fault and was always willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good of the team. As a result he always played second fiddle to other strikers that were not as good as him.
Ashley Young, Antonio Valencia, Michael Carrick, Nemanja Vidic, and Garry Neville were all given the club captaincy at the end of their careers when the were considered the elder statesmen. They all had the insight of age and wisdom to guide them. But Rooney, Maguire, Bruno were all burdened with leadership too early in their careers. Even to the point that it has inhibited their abilities and development as players.
A Balance Between Captain and Player
My point is, there is a balance with each player. A balance that weighs their physical abilities with the mental ones. A balance that weighs their contribution as a player versus their contribution as a leader.
When burdened with the responsibility of leadership it is easy to get lost in leading by example. The longer a player like Bruno suppresses their natural instincts for the sake of leadership the more that energy gets bottled up inside the player. To the point that those emotions only need a small spark in order to explode in spectacular fashion, as Bruno did against Liverpool.
At first he appeared to thrive under the pressure ten Hag entrusted him with. Especially since the world cup, Bruno has been one of United’s stand out players. The cracks only started to surface during and after the second leg against Barcelona in the Europa League. For a short while, beginning with this game, Bruno appeared to lose his composure.
Manchester United Captain Loses His Mojo
Against Barcelona, when things weren’t going his way, he kicked the ball, in full stride, into the face and abdomen of Frenkie de Jong while he was writhing in pain from a recent tackle. What’s more, all throughout that game he was overacting when tackled, was berating teammates, and was constantly pressuring the ref to make 50/50 calls in favor of United.
It should never be condoned when a player kicks the ball into another player on purpose. Bruno was lucky to escape a red card for that. Just as he was lucky to not see yellow for his incessant harassment of the ref. However, these antics and his exacerbated attitude were not a one off occasion.
Despite lifting a trophy, the Newcastle game turned into another indictment of Bruno’s virtues. Regularly during this game Bruno was again employing the aforementioned tactics. His frustration and unwillingness to lose seemed to reach new heights.
Even as a staunch Bruno fan, I have to admit that his behavior was obstinate at best against Newcastle. But, can he really be criticized for it? He led United to our first cup in half a decade. You can be the judge.
Bruno’s Digression Continues
His damning behavior continued into the game against West Ham at which point it was all but luck that the hammers didn’t take the lead off of a Bruno mistake in the opening twenty minutes. Or that they were unable to capitalize on the break from two Bruno mistakes in the second half, that would have kept them in the game.
Yet again, I tried to brush off these antics as the typical passion that has been the bedrock of Bruno’s abilities as a player. It has not been unfounded, during Bruno’s time at United, for him to suffer a cluster of games where his attitude and impishness are called into question. Normally, he has always managed to turn that behavior around before it became inhibitory.
But…then the Liverpool game happened…
THAT Liverpool Game
Bruno wasn’t the only player that should be called out for their performance in this game. But as the captain, he was always going to be the face of United’s catastrophic failure.
To recount, in this game, Bruno stepped well over the line, again, trying to buy fouls. Apologies to the diehard Bruno supporters, but he was outright diving all throughout the game. He went in on several petulant and unnecessary tackles. He ‘handled’ one of the linesmen in clear frustration while trying to get a ball from Trent Alexander Arnold for a throw in. And he was regularly seen aggressively shouting at teammates and the bench.
There were multiple moments where Bruno was lucky to escape a second yellow or even a straight red.
My affection towards Bruno has yet to reach it’s limits, so even at 4-0 down, I can…again…forgive all of this…again…equating it…again…to his typical passion. Their are however, two unforgivable acts that I have to level at Bruno that are unbecoming of a Manchester United captain.
Manchester United Captaincy Standard
Bruno’s overall tone and how drastically his typically compassionate composure digressed into pure cynicism and qualm against our Merseyside rivals is not becoming of a United captain. And after several poor performances his digression was becoming more and more detrimental to the squad.
This is to say that, as United captain, Bruno is obligated to maintain a certain etiquette on the field. But, during this period of games, and especially during the Liverpool game, he didn’t just fail to maintain that etiquette, in certain instances he even brought disgrace to his roll as team leader. In that sense he let down the team, the club, the coach and the fans.
Not that this is admonishment or justification for Bruno, but so did every other United player on the day. This wasn’t just the breakdown of one players game. Or even two or three players games.
Against Liverpool in particular there wasn’t a single player that stepped up to face adversity. While during this period the team as a whole have decreased production in front of goal and have look devoid of the spark we had immediately after the World Cup.
Acknowledge Failure, Not Blame
What’s to say that the visible frustrations from our Portuguese captain weren’t a direct result of his teammates crumbling in the wake of pressure, exhaustion or complacency. Particularly against Liverpool. One man can change the outcome of a game, but it takes a team to lose that badly.
I think the point here is, while Bruno should not be immune to criticism for his behavior in recent games, neither should he be held responsible for a total team breakdown or the effects of exhaustion. Each player must shoulder that responsibility equally.
The real problem is that the coverage since this match has been too singularly focused on his performances. Bruno’s name is pure click bait. Which makes it easy to focus on his faults and failures rather then the teams as a whole. He will be under a spotlight for the rest of the season.
Actions Speak a Thousand Words
The final argument against Bruno, is one that I have little exoneration for. A Manchester United captain needs to always, especially during the worst circumstances, respect the fans.
And in face of such a damning loss to Liverpool the worst thing that a United player could have done was not pay tribute to the traveling fans.
After the final whistle, players were heading down the tunnel to the locker room, visibly trying to hide their shame. Understandably so. Yet, cloaked in the embarrassment of United’s worst ever performance in the Premier League era, it was Rafael Varane that was shouting at the United players heading down the tunnel to force them to show some respect to the away fans before retreating into shame.
Even after such a short time with United, Varane knew the respect they had to show United fans.
Where was Bruno? He was on his way to the tunnel with the rest of United’s all but defunct players after taking a moment to harass the referee one last time.
Bruno’s Fate in the Balance
Say what you will about the Liverpool game, not acknowledging the away fans, especially after a defeat, is about as disrespectful as it gets. Ronaldo, Pogba, and a host of other players were criticized for this type of behavior after United’s last game of the 21/22 season.
Fortunately there is plenty of time left this season for Bruno to redeem himself.
Bruno’s and United’s performances against Betis, Southampton and Fulham were, in some respects redeeming, but far from acquitting. In the Fulham game he did look off the pace, as did the rest of the players. But a win is a win and a goal is a goal is a goal.
However, as far as I can tell, this opinion that Bruno should be stripped of the captaincy is a flagrant attempt to suck people into a non existent debate. The media appears to have a general bias against United, so they never seem to miss an opportunity to call attention to or fabricate problems at the club.
A Blip for a Team in Progress
A players performance over such a short sampling of games should never be condemning. Especially when said players performances for the 20+ games preceding the games in question were not just outstanding, but downright inspirational.
I would also point out, that it is not how a player fails that determines their suitability as captain. Every player fails.
The criteria for captaincy in such an instance is how a player responds to that failure. And in this sense Bruno has yet again exceeded all expectations.
In the wake of this cluster of substandard games that began for Bruno against Leeds, he has still led United to a record of 9-3-1. A record that is still the third best in all of Europe in that time. And he has captained the team to the Carabao Cup trophy as well as the quarter finals of the Europa League and the Semifinals of the FA Cup. (though technically he didn’t wear the armband against Fulham)
Not to mention, Manchester Untied are still third in the Premier League with two games in hand over Tottenham in fourth place.
Bruno is a True Leader
In fact, since the World Cup, United have won more games, scored more goals, and lost fewer games than any other team in top flight football. They have accumulated 13 clean sheets in their last 19 games. And they have played more games this season than any other team in a European first division. In this period, Bruno has played more minutes for United than any other player, save David DeGea
Further support for Bruno surfaces in the form of his goal contributions this season. Last season he had 24 goal contributions while the season before he finished with 45 goal contributions.
So far this season, Bruno has 18 goal contributions with more then 25 games still left in the season. (provided we make it to the final of the FA and Europa League Cups). If you calculate Bruno’s average goal involvement of 18 goals and assists across 45 games so far, it is not unreasonable to suggest that he could easily reach 30 goal contributions this season.
A statistic bettered by only Marcus Rashford, within the United Squad. In fact, the rate of Bruno’s goal contributions so far this season is only bettered by Rashford, Haaland, Mbappe, Messi, Naymar, Victor Osimhen and Lewindowski.
If Not Bruno Then Who?
So who then? Who do the media and contemptuous fans think could or should fill those shoes?
This isn’t the same situation as Harry Maguire. Maguire was made United captain simply because of a lack of better choices. Bruno has been with United for more than two seasons now. He was a leader in the dressing room through the darkest days under Ole and Ralf. While his goals as assists through that period kept United out of the bottom half of the table.
Bruno, absolutely has the ability to be a volatile player, just like Roy Keane. And like Keane, should his volatility become too disruptive, then he will be removed from the team. We simply just aren’t there yet. By all counts, Bruno is a well loved and respected character in the dressing and by in large his contribution has been overall positive and that of a leader.
Thus for the mean time he should and most likely will remain game day captain, in Maguires absence. But, as a solace to the Bruno critics, should he falter in his duties, ten Hag does not appear the type to let it fester. Not to mention there are four of five other players waiting to take his place. A luxury that has been all too rare at Manchester United.