LIVERPOOL’S captain is no longer a single individual.
Since his arrival in October 2015, Jürgen Klopp has kept Jordan Henderson as his skipper but also passed on that role to James Milner, Lucas Leiva, Jose Enrique, Christian Benteke, Joe Allen, Kolo Toure, Simon Mignolet, Jon Flanagan and Philippe Coutinho.
The list looks a long one because the majority of those players have only led the team for a single game. After all, someone had to skipper the side of 10-year-olds we put out for the FA Cup games against Exeter and it’s nice when someone unexpected is rewarded with the armband.
But how is the criteria judged? What makes a captain?
Well, this is an illuminating remark from Klopp following our game with Spartak Moscow last week:
“He [Coutinho] was the longest servant on the pitch tonight in the lineup, it was clear that he was the captain. He’s [been] here since 2013; I had to Google it, to be honest.”
Fair enough. It’s a one-off game and Henderson, Milner and even Mignolet were not in the team so it’s natural to choose the most experienced player. It worked too. Coutinho didn’t appear to feel the weight of the responsibility and scored a hat trick.
This is a healthy thing as surely all managers want everyone to be a captain. Everyone should be responsible for the team effort. If they’re all strong characters, then only good can come of it.
Gary Neville was asked about this last week and he rejected the idea of multiple captains, stating that while it’s true that any good team would look for more than one leader on the pitch, it still needs a focal point. It needs one player to lead and be the manager on the pitch. It doesn’t need a litany of senior players acting without portfolio. Power sharing can’t work on a pitch, according to Neville, much in the same way that joint managers struggle. One man may give one instruction only to have it countermanded by another senior pro.
As Johnny Sac asks in The Sopranos when Tony suggests a power-sharing leadership of the New York Mafia, “What is this? The fuckin’ U.N. now?”
The main problem with the notion of a single leader is one of form. Even the staunchest of Henderson advocates would admit that he’s not had the best of seasons and is just as likely to be dropped due to form as team rotation no matter what his manager says. Even when he’s on the pitch it must be difficult to bollock a wayward pass or poor decision when he himself is stinking the ground out.
This can happen to other senior players too. In his first few games for the club, Dejan Lovren would loudly order the back four around, but became noticeably quieter when things were not going his way and, come the end of his first season, he was practically silent. From lion to dormouse in a few short months.
Of course, the game is ever changing with certain fashions being in vogue. Look at formations. In the late 1990s it was all about the number 10 role or the little man/big man partnership. That was dropped in favour of a 4-2-3-1 and then false nines. The great Spanish sides of a decade ago more or less caused the death of the traditional 4-4-2. This season 4-4-2 has come back and been used both by ourselves and Manchester United. Such is the fluidity of systems and styles that this maybe the dawning of a new age – that of the death of the conventional captain.
Henderson will likely be our first-choice captain for some time to come, but it’s interesting that the manager selected Coutinho purely on longevity rather than personality or characteristics. Also, he appears to give his instructions out to others, not just Jordan. In recent weeks it’s become noticeable that, when both are on the pitch in a central role, Klopp speaks to Milner as much as he does Henderson. That might be because he just sees them both as important and mature senior players rather than a hierarchical pairing of captain and vice captain.
There’s been a similar discussion at international level. In August, Gareth Southgate told Miguel Delaney of The Independent:
“I want to continue sharing that responsibility. It’s been healthy for us. We’re seeing good leaders emerging from the group. People have talked about that not being the case in the past, but in my view there are good leaders in the group, not just senior players but younger players as well. The more we give them responsibility and allow them to take a lead, that’s healthy for the team. You want people stepping forward making good decisions on the pitch, being brave on the ball, and leading by example.
“I’m not in a rush to do that [confirm a captain]. I’ll have to give it some thought, really. It’s not high on my list of priorities. Developing more people who can step up and influence, getting the bond of team really strong, so we stand together is far more important than putting an individual in a position where, if they’re the only one we’re looking to – and that’s been the case in the recent past – we won’t get the best out of the group.”
So the captain’s role is more collegiate than based on one strong leader. In the same article, Kyle Walker states:
“In recent squads, we always looked up to Wayne and he took the negatives for us. I think it’s good to share it around. It’s a team game who goes up there, win or lose, taking the positives or negatives.”
Of course, this is much different from club football as it would be a bit harsh to ask players like Dom Solanke, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez to bear the brunt of errors and expectation when there are others nearly a decade older than them, but the principle is the same.
Maybe this is the time when the Graeme Souness-type captaincy is at an end. Maybe even the time when the captaincy is nothing more than an administrative procedure. A box to tick in a spreadsheet.
The best sides need leadership and, in the past, we’ve bought players for that as much as their abilities.
When Roy Evans brought in Paul Ince from Inter Milan, he instantly made him captain on his debut, taking the armband from John Barnes. This was the post “Spice Boys” era and one of the criticisms of that side was of a lack of leadership. Ince didn’t set the world alight despite him seeming the perfect man to change our fortunes. Before too long the self-styled “Guvnor” became “the Governess” in the various fanzines sold around the ground.
When Gerard Houllier took over, he saw that there was a lot of hot air and bluster from the former Man United player and when he left the pitch with an injury Old Trafford in the 1999 cup tie while The Reds were a goal up, he took the opportunity to stress how captains and leaders don’t ask to be substituted in that situation. Soon after Jamie Redknapp took the armband and Ince was unceremoniously dumped “with no class or dignity” according to an interview he gave to the press.
Ince hadn’t changed at all. Evans brought him in because he wanted a strong personality for the pitch and dressing room. Houllier wanted rid of him for the same reason. The club had changed philosophies, not the men themselves.
Klopp said recently that Henderson has the hardest job in football as he has to replace Steven Gerrard, but there were even misgivings about his leadership, particularly over the whole “Stevie Me” thing. It’s not always a given that a great player makes a great captain, much in the same way that not all players go onto magnificent managerial careers.
My own favourite Gerrard moment was when an interviewer excitedly told him that the new batch of younger players (Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe etc) were ready for regular first-team football. Gerrard gave him “that” look — part smile, part frown — and said: “You think so? Not even close yet”.
I loved that. He didn’t have to be nice all of the time. That’s how mediocrity creeps in. He was honest and employed both carrot and stick and if you respect the captain and his assessment, you’ll do all you can to keep working. Gerrard’s favourite players were also his friends – Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres. Both men were of his level. He just wanted everyone to be there with them and that’s how it should be. That’s what a captain strives for.
Whether Klopp will decide to adopt a floating captaincy role remains to be seen, but it looks like he, like Southgate, doesn’t see it as a priority and while it’s a huge honour to captain Liverpool, it may be that we’re entering an age where that honour is to become more diluted.