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Aug 12, 2014

Captain Rooney: A pragmatic choice

The ESPN FC crew question Louis van Gaal's decision to make Wayne Rooney captain of Manchester United this season.

Wayne Rooney has been named as the club captain of Manchester United.

This is a sentence that may provoke great derision and dismay among supporters, but one which, in relation to Louis van Gaal's priorities, is particularly revealing.

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Were Van Gaal a mere populist, then he would have handed the armband to Robin van Persie, with whom he enjoyed a close bond at international level. But the Dutch coach is a far cannier man manager than that; and, maybe, this famously obstinate character has learned a lesson from history.

More of that later: first, though, we should deal briefly with the question of why this appointment may be so controversial for some. Rooney, after all, is a man who agitated not once but twice to leave the club, on one occasion threatening to depart for one of the club's most hated rivals, Manchester City; second only in loathing to Liverpool.

Rooney, last season -- despite sustained periods of being Manchester United's best performer -- was also handed a premium contract when past his peak, apparently as a reward for his thinly-veiled machinations towards a move to Chelsea. In some eyes, if there were a class for throwing your toys out of the corporate pram, then Rooney would have graduated with distinction.

When Van Gaal was appointed, there was a sense that he would have the strength to discipline Rooney, and the courage to drop him; and it must be noted that, despite this decision, this is a strength that he retains.

Our experts don't believe Man United will win the Prem title.
Louis van Gaal and Wayne Rooney will both need to succeed in order to return Manchester United back to the top of the Premier League.

Rooney, to his credit, has produced excellent preseason form, combining superbly with Juan Mata both as a striker and playmaker, and contributing four goals as well as the odd elegant assist.

Crucially, Van Gaal's 3-4-1-2 formation allows the England forward both to indulge his desire to get involved in build-up play as well as to apply the finishing touch. Ultimately, if the club are to pay Rooney in the region of 300,000 pounds per week for the next four and a half years, then it is in everyone's interests that he remains this exuberant and this productive.

From one vantage point, it is difficult not to feel vengeful against a player who has seemed in recent seasons to stymie his team's attacking development, with several promising moves foundering at his feet. Yet Rooney will always be an intriguing player; one whose technique, more than most other players at his level, seems tied to his state of mind.

Witnessing Rooney in an England shirt, for example against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, was to see a player so despondent that the ball ricocheted off him too often. It is trite, but he is at his best when he is confident, and despite his troubled recent history at the club he often seems to respond well to the responsibility of captaining Manchester United.

In naming him captain, Van Gaal will not be accused of sycophancy; this, after all, is a man who was brave enough to fall out with Rivaldo after the Brazilian's refusal to comply with his tactical instructions.

Robin van Persie was another good candidate for the capataincy, but did his injury record weigh against him?

It can be argued instead that Van Gaal's decision was based both upon pragmatism and a concern for the dressing-room's ethos.

In terms of pragmatism, Van Persie is a player whose injury record has seen him absent for long periods throughout his career, and whose industry is perhaps not as infectious as an on-song Rooney.

In terms of the dressing-room, it is hard to dispute that Rooney is a forward who produces results. There may also be a desire by Van Gaal not to repeat the mistake that he made at Barcelona, where though he won two league titles the squad was unsettled amid rumours that he had allowed a clique of Dutch players to form and coagulate to the team's detriment.

Some might consider that Jonny Evans, the Northern Ireland centre-back, should have been named as the captain as a compromise between Van Persie and Van Gaal, but that presumes that Evans stands very high in the Dutchman's affections. Given the club's pursuit of some of the world's leading ball-playing defenders, it may be that Van Gaal does not view him in the long term as the dominant defender at Old Trafford.

Moreover, to have named Evans captain may have looked like an admission that there was a clash of egos between his two leading forwards, and the last thing that the team needs is a publicly-declared turf far.

The truth, however, is probably more prosaic than that.

Van Gaal mentioned that he wanted to retain the club's English character, a nod to his most successful predecessors, and in that context his choice of Rooney makes sense.

What a difference a year makes; had David Moyes made the same choice, the widespread fear would have been that he did so from a place of desperation rather than strategic planning. Perhaps that is unfair.

Nevertheless, the focus now shifts to Rooney; and the pressure, smartly applied by Van Gaal, is on him to deliver.

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