With Bruno Fernandes suspended for the trip to Villa Park to face Aston Villa earlier this month, and Harry Maguire left out of the stating line-up, manager Erik ten Hag chose Ronaldo to shoulder the responsibility of stand-in captain. It was a surprise move by the Dutchman, not least because he had banished him from the squad for the trip to Chelsea just 15 days earlier for disciplinary issues, following his refusal to step off the bench against Tottenham Hotspur.
It will be considered somewhat ironic if Cristiano Ronaldo’s final appearance in a Manchester United shirt was an occasion that saw him wear the captain’s armband.
Addressing why he had made the decision to give Ronaldo the armband ahead of kick-off at Villa Park, Ten Hag said: “We have more leaders, Harry is on the bench, Bruno is suspended, you take the player who has the leadership.
“The goalie [David de Gea] is often far away from the situations, especially in the opponent’s half and we want to play in the opponents half. Casemiro is not speaking full English language yet, then you come to Cristiano, he is doing really (well) the last two games, I hope he keeps that process going.
“When you are captain and leader you have to set an example and that is what I expect from him — he is an important part of the squad, we are happy with him and now he has to taken even more of the leader role.”
Since captaining the side in that 3-1 defeat at Villa Park, Ronaldo has not played for United, missing the last two matches through illness. Now, following the reveal of his explosive interview with Piers Morgan, it is quite possible that the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will never represent United again.
It means that Ten Hag, as surprising as his decision was to award Ronaldo the armband against Unai Emery’s side, could soon find himself a ‘leader’ down – even if the Dutchman is unlikely to ever give the honour to the Portuguese international again. He has disrespected Ten Hag in every way imaginable, meaning his United career is probably as good as over.
But away from the whole Ronaldo saga and the baggage that comes with that ongoing situation, questions, especially among the fans, continue to be asked about who could become United’s next permanent captain, in the event of Maguire being stripped of the captaincy or leaving the club. The England international, despite receiving Ten Hag’s full backing ahead of the start of the season, has struggled for regular opportunities this term, making just nine appearances in all competitions.
If that trend continues, which does seem likely, given how well Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez have blossomed alongside each other in the heart of the defence this term, Ten Hag will have to make a decision on who could succeed Maguire as United captain on a permanent basis. Would Fernandes be first in line to be offered the role, or would Ten Hag have other candidates in mind?
Considering that he drew reference to Casemiro in his pre-match TV interview at Villa Park, citing his lack of fluent English as a reason for why he did not get the armband on that occasion, it suggested that the Brazilian, further down the line, could be a credible candidate to scoop the role. Casemiro is a born leader, has slotted in seamlessly at Old Trafford and is vastly experienced.
As well as that, his position, which sees him play in the very centre of the pitch, could influence Ten Hag’s thinking further. He has played with a series of elite-level players throughout his career, too, and an ability to captain United would not be beyond his limits.
The Brazilian, however, is not the only summer signing who could be in with a shot of securing the privileged honour. Martinez, too, has also displayed outstanding leadership traits since arriving in M16 during the summer.
He has instantly become a firm fans’ favourite, highlighted by his ‘Argentina’ chant, and has produced a series of performances featuring the qualities and attributes you would expect from a captain at a club of United’s stature. He is a no-nonsense type of player, who loves to wear his heart on his sleeve and give absolutely everything for the cause.
Ten Hag made it his mission during the summer to install a fresh mindset and culture into the club. In the additions of Casemiro and Martinez, he might have also found future captains.