Everyone knows how important it is for Bruno Fernandes to take charge of Manchester United. It was written on his face when he learned he was going to wear the armband for the first time.
The news was delivered by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during the middle of a press conference conducted over Zoom in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fernandes was seated side by side with Solskjaer, his face taking up plenty of funky webcam frames.
“The captain is sitting next to me,” Solskjaer said out of nowhere. Bruno will lead the team tomorrow.
When he heard those words, Fernandes raised his head, turned to Solskjaer, and then glanced across the room. A pair of raised eyebrows and a smirk were sent to the person sitting in front of him.
“I wasn’t expecting this. I knew at the same time as I did,” he said. “Of course, it’s an honor.”
It was a lovely moment – a hilarious but really thoughtful way to hear the news on Solskjaer’s part – and a sign of the impact Fernandes has already made at United, despite his Old Trafford career still less than a year away.
He had joined in January of that year, even two weeks after Solskjaer had named Harry Maguire as his new captain. Maguire himself was only a United player for five months before taking over the position he was stripped of last weekend.
Maguire’s disappointment with this decision is understandable, but having lost his starting place and sliding down the pecking order it should come as no surprise. Nor is the identity of his replacement.
Removing the captaincy from Maguire would hurt him – but it was the right decision
Not that Erik ten Hag was lacking in options. As with the wide field of candidates for the club’s Player of the Year award at the end of last season, the number of leaders in United’s dressing room is another sign of the progress made over the past year.
At another point in United’s recent history, choosing Casemiro, Raphael Varane, Luke Shaw or Marcus Rashford was an automatic choice. They are all prominent figures in the dressing room and are likely to form part of a leadership group around the permanent captain.
However, having led his teammates in all starts when Maguire was out last season, Fernandes has always been the favourite.
A decision still has to be made and communicated, and as Oslo’s Ten Hag made clear during the club’s pre-season tour, the call will be his and not a collective decision from the dressing room.
Ten Hag did not tell the players of his decision on Wednesday before flying to the United States, in part because the team’s surprise return to pre-season training meant he was unable to get all the players together in one group. The United players were informed at a team meeting on the morning of their first day at their base in New Jersey.
Despite Maguire’s disappointment, a change had to be made. Any club would find it unsustainable to have a non-playing captain in the long term and even in United’s dressing room last season, uncertainty about the team’s hierarchy sometimes had an impact.
Some players, for example, have been reticent about making speeches in the dressing room because they don’t want to be seen as undermining Maguire.
Even attempts to organize nights out were laced with awkwardness: should Maguire be the one to organize a get-together despite the fact he wasn’t playing? Or should another player socially sort a team, even though they weren’t the captain?
Such questions seem trivial – especially outside of English football, where the level of importance attached to who wears the armband can seem murky or downright bizarre.
But the dressing room hierarchy has the same meaning as the dressing room. United are not the only club who place importance on the role and have a proud tradition of captains. They are far from the only club with a manager who, in Ten Hag, values order, discipline and structure.
Ten Hag turned to Fernandez because, even without the honour, the prestige and sometimes the burden of a captain’s armband, the Portuguese represented the culture of high standards he wanted to implement.
From Ten Hag’s view, Fernandes’ knowledge of the game and his strength as a communicator helped him emerge as de facto leader for Manchester United in Maguire’s absence over the course of last season. And while nothing was guaranteed until the decision was revealed to players on Thursday, there have been clues along the way.
In April last season an injury threatened to prevent Fernandes from playing for Tottenham Hotspur and his death, one of his greatest strengths as a player and captain, was suddenly called into question.
However, Fernandez had been walking very carefully around Carrington without the aid of crutches or a protective boot the day before the match. He traveled with the team to North London, started and played the full 90 minutes, assisting Rashford to a 2-2 draw.
In his pre-match media rounds, Ten Hag declared that he was pleased with Fernandez’s determination to play.
“He’s tough, he takes responsibility, he wants to play,” he said. “We are happy to have him because he is a big player for us and he makes a big impact in every game. He is our captain, so we are really happy.”
That could have been just an indiscreet comment – but Ten Hag spoke of Fernandes’ leadership qualities even more after the final whistle.
“I think it’s the example you have to suffer from, you have to decide if you want to sacrifice, if you want to play or not, if you want to achieve something at that level,” he said. “Once again, he showed there what a great leader he is.”
Tin Hag was never in doubt as to Fernandez’s suitability, even when others questioned him. The 28-year-old’s habit of not only protesting with officials but also with his team-mates is not to everyone’s taste. Bouts of frustration have become a trademark.
After the bruising 7-0 defeat against Liverpool in March, Fernandes came under heavy criticism for what he saw as displays of rudeness. In the commentary, Gary Neville said “It wasn’t the captain’s performance”. Ten Hag dismissed questions about his suitability as a leader as crazy.
Ask Fernandez about his leadership style and he’ll tell you that he’s simply doing the one thing he can do: being himself.
“It’s something that comes naturally to me,” he said. the athlete last year. “It’s not something I try to do in training. Even in normal life, I try to help people. My mom and dad made me understand that if you can help the next person, do it. If that means talking, then I speak.”
In this sense, there should be no worry about getting up to the plate, and no risk of impostor syndrome. Fernandez just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing, which he’s always been doing. He said, “I’m not trying to be a leader, I’m who I am.”
This ruthless competitive edge on the field may be what Fernandes is known for, but it is matched by a responsible and compassionate side off the field, as those involved in the club’s community work through the Manchester United Foundation will attest.
Due to their World Cup commitments last Christmas, United players recorded video messages of the children spending the festive period in hospital rather than making their usual in-person visits. However, Fernandez didn’t understand why they couldn’t go anyway once they got back and gave his personal number to the staff at the establishment to rearrange the trip.
This enthusiasm for the broader aspects of being United captain – something Maguire has always shown – is a big part of the role his fellow Old Trafford leaders have.
Ultimately Ten Hag wants to build a team of leaders equipped with a winning mentality which he sees as central to his vision of football. In Fernandez, he believes he has the perfect embodiment.
(Top photo: Mark Atkins/Getty Images)
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