The new manager-captain partnership of Louis van Gaal and Wayne Rooney is a powerful one that can help lift Manchester United back into the Champions League places as their Premier League campaign kicks off against Swansea City at Old Trafford.
Defying conventional logic comes easily to Van Gaal, who is not scared to shock. When he took over at United plenty predicted world war three between him and Rooney. At that point Robin van Persie seemed nailed on to be captain; but Van Gaal turned that expectation on its head, in the face of intense media speculation about how his relationship with Rooney would work.
What Van Gaal will have seen while watching him train every day is that he has passed the armband to the most intense player at that football club, with a ferocious attitude and tough mentality. He knows Rooney will fight to the last minute of every game and deliver goals, season in, season out.
Armed with this knowledge from friendlies and training sessions, Van Gaal has defused what many thought would be an explosive situation. Pictures show him hugging Rooney on the training pitch. I have no idea whether he hugs every player but there is no doubt he has made a conscious decision to bring Rooney on board: to place him at the heart of the new order.
These Manchester United players are on watch. The depressing events of last season are not yet forgotten. Only if they respond through the quality of their performances will memories of 2013-2014 be laid to rest. And all parties know that no team ride roughshod over Louis van Gaal. Rooney is now in a new phase of his career with the chance to become the leader. There has been a sharp decline in leadership in football but Rooney has all the attributes.
By ‘leaders’ I mean people who are prepared not only to hold themselves accountable but hold their team-mates accountable too. Rooney is one of a dying breed of footballers who is willing to call his team-mates out. He can take criticism but also hand it out. His approach is the traditional one of not taking criticism personally – and expecting team-mates not to take it personally either.
Van Gaal will have looked at Rooney and thought: this is a player who is not too proud to listen to criticism and not too shy to dish it out. That is captaincy material, as Van Gaal outlined in his press conference ahead of the Swansea match. The next stage for Rooney is to think like a captain.
When I think back to his early days at United I remember his personality and cheekiness. Rooney was the only player who would dare pull up a seat at the coaches’ table in the canteen and ask Sir Alex Ferguson: “Am I playing tomorrow, boss?” The manager would cuff him about the head and say: “That’s nothing to do with you.”
Other times, Rooney would sit next to Sir Alex on the bus and ask: “Who am I playing up front with?” He would just assume he was in the team.
When I was part of a group of senior players, with Vidic, Rio, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, Rooney and Patrice Evra were the most vocal. Rooney would face everything head on. I can think of many occasions when he would be screaming at the defence to move up or the midfield to close down. As captain, now, the other players will look at him differently. His team-mates will expect him to offer help and advice. He will be expected to be the voice of the team more often with the media.
As Manchester United captain with a huge profile, in the peak years of his career, Rooney has one simple task: to lift the Premier League trophy. Anything else is a failure for a Manchester United captain.
There is much to excite him in this arrangement. He gets to start afresh with added responsibility: the biggest challenge of his club career. The media spotlight is hardly alien to him but he will feel it burn more than ever. Van Gaal has clearly decided that Rooney will respond well to being entrusted with leader status.
Through manager and captain, a strong sense of purpose should shape United’s work. Rooney has the qualities to lead by example on the pitch and through his no-holds-barred approach. He will even call his coaches out. Wayne Rooney will not hold back. He is one of the few footballers I watch now who could have survived 20 years ago, in what was a more brutal environment, where every decision in training was challenged, where he would have wired into his goalkeeper if he made a mistake, where being vocal was a virtue rather than the mark of a troublemaker. Ten minutes after calling a team-mate out, he would join them on a sofa, returning to friendship mode. He pays no attention to age, seniority or reputation.
Now, he has to polish himself and make sure everything he says as captain of Man United is for the betterment of the team. He will be good at that, because in football players have become a bit scared, a bit too sensitive, to speak to one another in forthright terms. Wayne Rooney could reintroduce the highest levels of accountability. We saw it with previous captains such as Steve Bruce, Roy Keane, Bryan Robson and Eric Cantona. With those men, nothing was allowed to pass unchallenged.
Rooney will promote conversation when things are not right. It is a real challenge for coaches in modern sport to get players to take ownership of their performances, and instil that culture. Player-to-player conversations can have an even greater influence than coach-to-player discussions.
Locally, in United circles, anticipation is high. There is a fascination around Van Gaal, who has time, with a relatively gentle start to the fixture list, to ready himself for a tough spell in October and November when his team face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal.
United are coming out of a dismal season – the worst for 25 years. I did not enjoy 2013-14 from a football point of view or in the way it ended for David Moyes. There is, though, a surge of hope, even if recruiting players is becoming so much harder.
The dark arts are multiplying. Gone are the days when clubs are content to speak to one another chairman to chairman. Nowadays there is a maze and myriad of webs to contend with. The days of Manchester United being able to walk a player round Old Trafford and show him the club blazer are finished. Before you can even get to the player you will have to deal with the agent, the lawyer, the brother, the uncle.
United are still in the storm phase after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the departure of David Moyes. The club are still settling down. While targets are pursued, Tyler Blackett and Michael Keane have emerged as promising young defenders, and the confidence of other players such as Fletcher, Cleverley, Young, Jones and Smalling is on the up.
I said last season that part of the task was to draw the best from players already at United. They had all been Premier League champions only months earlier. When I watched United against Liverpool or Valencia in pre-season I thought ahead to that run of games against Chelsea, City and Arsenal in October and thought: that is when Louis van Gaal will know how strong his squad really is.
Running through the sections of the team, it stares all of us in the face that no club could lose Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra at once and not expect to have to buy at least one proven defender to bolster the group. The idea of Jones, Smalling and Evans being given their head in a back three is appealing. A promotion for those three lads, with Van Gaal investing his faith in them, is a move I wholly agree with. The manager is saying: “You are my men.”
But Evans, Jones and Smalling have all had injuries over the past two or three seasons. To that base I would expect United to add one or two established defenders. Trips to City, Arsenal or Chelsea are not generally undertaken with recent academy graduates at the heart of the defence. So I imagine Van Gaal will want to add to his pool of centre-backs.
The pre-season form was strong and the players have adapted to his tactics. They are hungry to learn and prove themselves. That’s a good cocktail. Defensively, though, they need a couple of rocks. Mats Hummels appears not to be leaving Germany and Thomas Vermaelen has moved to Barcelona. So the heat is on to find a new defender with authority and experience to complete the set.
Van Gaal has a track record of working with the players he already has. He backs himself to coach good players to the level he demands. Promoting younger ones is part of his methodology. In central midfield, as things stand, United are going to struggle to match the strength at the core of Chelsea or Manchester City. Everyone can see that. Herrera is a good footballer who will now face the task of having to face Liverpool or City in a big Premier League fixture and he will need some help in that department.
The areas where reinforcements are needed are defence, central midfield and wide. I would like to see a new winger brought in to provide a tactical alternative, as Valencia and Young look likely to be used in a wing-back role.
In my opinion Adnan Januzaj is going to be a world star. When I turn my thoughts to the forward areas Rooney and Van Persie are the names on everyone’s tongue. United need those two to perform at their natural level. With Januzaj, I am convinced United have a youngster who will become one of the best in the world over the next five years.
A bold statement, I know. And some bold statements return to haunt you. Yet when I watch him play I see someone with temperament, ability, determination. Those eyes express fierce intent. Their message is: no one will stop me. Looking at Van Gaal’s history, you notice that he always promotes a technical player. David Moyes introduced Januzaj – gave him his head – and I would be amazed if he failed to thrive this season even more than last, when he tired towards the end of the campaign.
This is a big season for Januzaj. At this stage of his physical development you would not expect him to deliver 20 goals a season. But in two or three years I think he will, because he has the attributes of a world-class player.
For Van Gaal this first season is about instilling principles. To a large degree he may be happy to start with the squad he already has, rather than deal with an influx while also getting to know the current team. A big shopping trip would make a difficult situation even harder. But I do believe Manchester United will deliver in the next two weeks and bring two players in, which will protect the club against the criticism that would follow a run of underwhelming results.
Van Gaal has the look of a man who sees football in its purest form. I suspect he enjoys the higher level of control he can exert over younger players, because they are more receptive, or easier to shape, when he is laying out his plans. He was a teacher before he was a football coach and has a sharp sense of how young people think and how they absorb information. You could see that in pre-season in the way Smalling, Jones and Blackett attuned themselves to the manager’s thinking.
In two or three years, the judgment will be made on the basis of whether Van Gaal and Rooney are lifting the Premier League trophy above their heads. This new manager-captain partnership will hunt that target together, with similar intensity. They lead United into action against Swansea today and I expect them to cut down many teams along the way. Rooney’s time has come.