Mon. Mar 8th, 2021

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Manchester United are developing a new leadership group

4 min read

It was last month Ole Gunnar Solskjaer trumpeted the acoustics in the Manchester United dressing room.

“We have some good characters in the team,” he emphasised. “The dressing room is louder, it’s more vocal. Of course, with the experience of Nemanja Matic, who has won it a couple of times, David [de Gea], Juan Mata, Edinson [Cavani].”

The aforementioned quartet are all in their 30s and Solskjaer belatedly heeded Matic’s advice on the eve of last season. “Quality and experience bring you the title,” Matic stressed to reporters in Singapore. “In this squad we have quality and no experience.”

Matic’s comments caused a stir at a time United were bringing the average age of their squad down, recruiting 21-year-olds Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Marouane Fellaini, Antonio Valencia and Ander Herrera – either in their 30s or in their 30th year – left and later that summer Chris Smalling and Matteo Darmian, both 29, were jettisoned.

United lost eight of their first 24 Premier League fixtures last season and were 30 points adrift of Liverpool, so far ahead they resembled a mirage, partly due to a naive squad they were developing. Even the 34-year-old club captain, Ashley Young, left in January.

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Manchester United beat West Ham 1-0 in the FA Cup, thanks to Scott McTominay’s extra-time winner.

United sealed a spot in the cup quarter-finals with victory over David Moyes’ side at Old Trafford, and now they travel to West Brom in the league on Sunday.

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Matic was borderline redundant in the first half of the campaign but was recalled in January and left Pep Guardiola cooing at his matchwinning performance at the Etihad. Fernandes, schooled in catenaccio canniness during five years in Italy, arrived and had a transformative effect. Even the suspect loan addition of the 30-year-old Odion Ighalo from Shanghai provided short-term gain.

Mata has not been pictured in training for a fortnight but was underused before then. He was instrumental in raising United’s morale with the 4-1 win at Newcastle in October and has brought the best out of Donny van de Beek, bereft again on Tuesday night.

It is especially galling turnstiles are closed for United matchgoers when Cavani is wearing red. The bond between fan and striker would be just as ardent as it was with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, gifted a chant on his league debut, and Cavani has defied the inauspicious circumstances surrounding his deadline day transfer.

Cavani turns 34 on Valentine’s Day but has shown no signs of wilting like a bunch of roses. Solskjaer suggested it was a matter of time until United extended Cavani’s contract on Boxing Day but no decision has been made yet. The will-he-won’t-he with Ibrahimovic rumbled on until he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, despite hinting in an interview with the MEN he would ‘never leave a job unfinished’.

With Ibrahimovic, transfer teasing is part of the brand. Cavani does not care for that and it should be a straightforward extension, especially as the decision rests with United.

The club has had a tendency to extend deals mid-season, although there have been exceptions. Mata, now into his eighth year at the club, is not going to be held against his own will if he favours a return to Spain after a decade in England.

United should still maximise Mata’s mentoring for another year, particularly as Van de Beek might truly thrive once Paul Pogba leaves. He has captained the club countless times and was a starter in their three triumphant finals in 2016 and 2017. Even Fernandes, however admirable his mentality is, only has Portuguese cup medals to show from his club career haul.

De Gea’s situation is uncertain, too. Solskjaer continues to shield him in public but is believed to have been more forthright in private, outing him following his mistakes this season. Whether it is at West Brom on Sunday, later in the season or even next season, De Gea will be dropped at the expense of Dean Henderson and the duo’s dynamic can only be managed for another year at the very most.

Matic received a generous three-year contract in July but could easily depart before then. Henderson and Marcus Rashford, both 23, and Scott McTominay, 24, are not spring chickens and obvious candidates to take over the leadership roles occupied by De Gea, Mata and Matic. Axel Tuanzebe, their youth team teammate, has skippered United and that is without mentioning Fernandes.

They have the quality and experience.

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