Van Gaal's first big decision: Van Persie or Rooney as captain?
Published 22/07/2014 | 16:58
Louis van Gaal will make his first significant decision as Manchester United manager tomorrow when he names his captain for the pre-season friendly against LA Galaxy in Pasadena.
The absence from the United States tour of Robin van Persie, Van Gaal’s captain during the World Cup with Holland, and the ankle injury which has sidelined Michael Carrick for three months ensures that a decision on a permanent captain may still be some weeks away.
But if Van Gaal overlooks Wayne Rooney when he hands out the armband in the Rose Bowl dressing room, it will point towards a wholly new dynamic at Old Trafford and one which the England forward is unlikely to have anticipated when he signed his new five-year contract in February.
The loss of so many experienced and long-serving players this summer has created a captaincy vacuum at United and the reality is that there is no outstanding candidate to succeed Nemanja Vidic, who has left for Inter Milan.
Rio Ferdinand has also left United, with Patrice Evra following his defensive partners out of the club by signing a two-year contract with Juventus on Monday.
Throw in the playing retirement of Ryan Giggs and Van Gaal has suddenly walked into a dressing-room that has lost four of its most influential figures.
A new hierarchy will quickly form within the squad and Rooney and Van Persie will be central figures, yet handing the captaincy to either will not be without issues or the potential to cause friction.
Carrick, a quietly-influential figure at United and one who has been around the club for almost a decade, would have been the obvious candidate to take the captaincy this season had he not been compromised by injury.
The 32-year-old is a guaranteed starter when fit, respected by team-mates and supporters alike and a good communicator on and off the field.
He is not a shouter and bawler in the manner of Roy Keane, the man whose number 16 shirt he inherited at Old Trafford, but he would be a safe pair of hands if nothing else and a choice which would prevent the possibility of a battle of egos between Van Persie and Rooney.
Handling that relationship will be crucial for Van Gaal, so the issue of the captaincy is perhaps a distraction he could do without.
On the surface, both players get on well and the respect between the pair is clear.
Publicly and privately, Rooney and Van Persie are hugely impressed with one another, with each regarding the other as a world-class performer.
But both will undoubtedly regard themselves as the top dog, with neither man the type to defer to another.
In Van Persie’s first season at Old Trafford, his goals and performances secured the title for United at a time when Rooney had fallen out with Sir Alex Ferguson.
The hierarchy at that point was clear, but Rooney’s return to prominence under David Moyes coincided with Van Persie’s miserable season of injury and loss of form.
Van Persie’s relationship with Van Gaal, emphasised by the high-five celebration following the forward’s goal against Spain at the World Cup, is very close, however, and that has muddied the waters for Rooney.
It is why Van Persie is regarded as the favourite to be named as United captain, but the Dutch forward would not be regarded as a universally popular selection at Old Trafford.
Many supporters grew tired of his performances when fit last season, with the implication being that his clear disaffection under Moyes had led to a change in attitude from twelve months earlier.
Van Gaal may command the total respect of Van Persie, but with United struggling under Moyes last season, would the captaincy been viewed as a reward for failing to perform under the previous regime?
There is also the sense that Van Persie has only been a United player for two years and his selection would be a slight on many who have performed for the club for longer.
And how would Rooney react? At 28 and with the England captaincy seemingly his to claim following Steven Gerrard’s international retirement, it would surely be a snub if he were to be overlooked for the armband at club level.
But while Van Persie would have his detractors, so would Rooney.
Having threatened to leave United on two occasions, Rooney’s stock has fallen among the supporters, so like Van Persie, there would be many who would be unhappy with his elevation to the captaincy.
As a result, Van Gaal faces a difficult decision.
His previous captaincy selections point to a certain type of character favoured by the Dutchman, however.
At Ajax, the experienced and reliable Danny Blind captained the team to the European Cup under Van Gaal in 1995, while Pep Guardiola was handed the armband by the Dutchman at Barcelona.
During his reign as Bayern Munich manager, Van Gaal turned to the veteran midfielder Mark van Bommel, despite a fractious relationship with the Dutch international.
Van Gaal has insisted he will take time to choose a captain and he may yet consider younger, emerging players for the role.
Phil Jones has always been earmarked as a leader, but injuries have curtailed his progress, while Darren Fletcher’s battle against illness has denied him the chance to stake a serious claim, even though he is now fully fit.
Carrick may yet become the compromise candidate, the one who saves Van Gaal a tough call.
But if he goes for Rooney or Van Persie, there will be as many unhappy with the decision as those who back it.