Pitchside

Cleverley done: the logic behind Van Gaal’s Rooney captaincy snub

Pitchside

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Last season Wayne Rooney looked certain to inherit the Manchester United armband from Nemanja Vidic.

With Vidic and Patrice Evra heading for the exit, and Rooney installed as the focal point of David Moyes’s team, it was only a matter of time until the captaincy came his way.

What’s more, United had backed themselves into a position where they had to do everything to keep their number 10 happy – including letting him lead the side.

Rooney’s two previous threats to leave the club resulted in landslide victories for the player. For all his hard-headed reputation, Sir Alex Ferguson’s approval of a new contract after Rooney’s transfer request in 2010 contributed massively to the problem.

And the worse United did under David Moyes, the better for Rooney.

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As their Champions League qualification hopes faded, the realisation set in that United would no longer be able to attract top players, so needed to keep their existing ones happy at any cost. Which in Rooney’s case meant making him captain.

So when he signed another colossal new deal in March, the die seemed cast – despite many fans misgivings, Rooney would be United’s reference point.

[VAN GAAL DEMANDS PLAYERS]

Louis van Gaal’s arrival changed all that.

Van Gaal has spent his career fearlessly ditching malcontents – far more ruthlessly, in fact, than the more pragmatic Ferguson who mixed his axeings of Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and past-his-best Keane with appeasement of Ronaldo, Ferdinand and still-in-his-prime-Keane – and refusing to tolerate any player who destabilised his squad.

What’s more, Van Gaal’s Netherlands captain was a certain Robin van Persie.

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When the Dutchman refused to name a skipper in his introductory press conference, it seemed like a great way to get Rooney knuckling down and working hard in pre-season, where motivation does not come easily to him.

Was Van Gaal dangling the armband in front of Rooney to coax extra effort from the forward?

[ROONEY INSPIRES UNITED VICTORY]

As it turns out – no.

Last night a United side containing Rooney, Juan Mata, Jonny Evans and Danny Welbeck was led by Tom Cleverley – the single most derided member of an underachieving squad.

Far from sending a message to Rooney, Van Gaal was sending one to the entire squad: the past is the past. I don’t care if you’re a national laughing stock – I will judge you on what I see.

We need to guard against hailing everything Van Gaal does as a masterstroke – after all, Moyes would have been destroyed for making Cleverley captain for the night.

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However, it does seem like pretty canny management to publicly show faith in a player who last season admitted that pressure and criticism were affecting his form.

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Where this leaves Rooney’s captaincy hopes is another matter.

It might be a coincidence that he delivered a fine two-goal salvo in United’s 3-2 win over Roma – or it might be the contribution of a man who knows he must fight like hell for his place in Van Gaal’s plans, rather than letting his reputation and global marketing power do the work.

Van Gaal has launched a concerted effort to restore football to the heart of Manchester United.

That includes his alarmingly bold statement that commercial and competitive success aren't always compatible, and his gripes about having to play at 2pm in the Denver heat.

[VAN GAAL LAYS INTO WASTEFUL UNITED]

His open disgust at his players' inability to keep the ball played into that. Pre-season is serious business, not a marketing opportunity.

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He probably looks enviously at Jose Mourinho, whose Chelsea squad are on a low-key tour of central Europe while their rivals bid to conquer new markets. He cannot understand anything that compromises football.

So we should hardly be surprised at his unwillingness to engage with an 'RVP v Rooney' captaincy debate.

Everything Van Gaal's players earn, they will earn on the pitch.

Alex Chick - @alex_eurosport

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