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27/05/2023 14:21

The Manchester United leadership group now has eight members

In a season the Man United captain has been reduced to a benchwarmer, Erik ten Hag has settled on a coterie of leaders.

The smartest decision by Erik ten Hag this season was to render the curious power struggle at Manchester United moot.

At Brentford in August, Harry Maguire shared the pitch with a teammate who had brazenly questioned his status in a meeting with Ralf Rangnick the previous season. Maguire was powerless to cow Cristiano Ronaldo. Everybody was.

The wedge between captain and superstar had been picked up on by the matchgoers. When Ronaldo departed to a standing ovation after the final home game of last season against Brentford, one supporter turned to Maguire, sat in the directors’ box, and yelled, “Show some f—–g respect.”

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So rather than officially reassign the captaincy to Ronaldo or another player, Ten Hag dropped Maguire and Ronaldo after the debacle at Brentford. Better yet, it underpinned United’s revival.

With Maguire and Ronaldo sat on separate rows in the home dugout, United beat Liverpool on an uproarious Monday night, still one of the highlights of their season. Ronaldo never truly regained his first-team status and has been gone for six months. Maguire still starts games on the bench and may be gone come the summer.

The timing of Ten Hag’s revelation that he was consulting a leadership group was telling: six days after the watershed result at Brentford. “When the attitude is no good from the team, often the leaders are not there because they are the ones who give the example and go in front. That is a point we have to work on.

“I work always with a group of leaders, not one in particular. I spoke with the leaders about this issue. It doesn’t have to be senior players but we have a core group who have to be the example and take the responsibility.”

Sources have described the leadership group as “pretty fluid” and not entirely set. Maguire is a member, as are de facto captain Bruno Fernandes, David de Gea, Marcus Rashford, Luke Shaw, Raphael Varane, Casemiro and, perhaps surprisingly, Tom Heaton.

Heaton, 37, is the oldest member of the first-team squad and shared a dressing room with Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs before his return to United AD (after dominance) in 2021. He is a worthy sounding board without United harking back too prominently to the past, as they did with their previous permanent manager and assistant.

United have won a trophy already

Varane was present at the infamous Maguire meeting that some United players thought Ronaldo had “hijacked”. Varane, 30, has lifted the two most cherished trophies in the game and is such a model example he researched United’s set-piece defending before he had completed his transfer in August 2021.

Casemiro is a recent and predictable addition to the group. Ten Hag has not gushed about a United player more repeatedly than Casemiro, lauded as “brilliant player” and “great player” during a six-minute debrief at Bournemouth.

Shaw earned a “well done, Lukey” off the Brazilian, who stopped in the mixed zone on Saturday. Shaw has become the go-to delegate to speak on behalf of the squad in defeat, a responsibility he subtly suggested he was growing weary of.

So Shaw was elected to stop and chat to two of the dedicated correspondents after the FA Cup semi-final against Brighton. Shaw talked with seniority about the challenges his younger teammates Rashford and Jadon Sancho faced during the penalty shootout.

Casemiro, Varane and Shaw helped United to victory at Bournemouth

Casemiro, Varane and Shaw helped United to victory at Bournemouth

Fernandes is, through a journalistic prism, the best talker in the squad. His English is faultless and his answers cover all bases. The transcript from this correspondent’s 20-minute interview with the Portuguese on the eve of the Manchester derby in January ran to 2,923 words.

This season, Fernandes has played a good game as well as talked one. He seems destined to assume the armband permanently once Maguire moves on.

During Ferguson’s time, training games at The Cliff used to pit the veterans against the youngsters. Ryan Giggs joined the former in his mid-20s and Rashford, into his eighth year in the first team, practically qualifies as a veteran at the age of 25. De Gea has the longevity of almost 12 years’ service.

Maguire was dignified as he congratulated Ten Hag at full-time at Bournemouth and the United supporters already inside the ground put their hands together for him during the warm-up after Maguire posed for a photo with a disabled fan.

Whereas Ronaldo rocked the boat so much it might have capsized, Maguire has remained a supportive lieutenant for Ten Hag.

The power is back with the manager.

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