All great teams in football history have had inspirational leaders in their side. Players who lead from the front, get the morale up when things aren’t looking great, drive their teammates on and often, prove to be the difference between defeat and victory. Such players are a favourite of their managers and are often seen as their extension on the pitch.
Two players that spring to one’s mind are Roy Keane & Steven Gerard and their exploits in 1999 & 2005 respectively. Manchester United found themselves 2-0 down within the first 15 minutes against Juventus in the UEFA Champions League semifinal. Their driving midfield force in Keane was the one who started a memorable comeback by scoring a towering header from a corner. Gerrard likewise led a spirited comeback for Liverpool from 3-0 down against AC Milan in the final. In both instances, their leaders proved to be the X-factor.
The leaders are often given the captain’s armband. However, there can be more than one driving force in a team, and not everyone can be made captain.
Thus, we have plenty of examples of teams having players who aren’t formal captains but are influential, nonetheless. Paul Pogba’s rousing halftime speech in the Nations League final against Spain was no doubt instrumental in getting the team together and winning the trophy.
Paul Pogba’s leadership skills were on show at half-time in the Nations League Final 🇫🇷💪— UtdDistrict (@UtdDistrict) October 12, 2021
Besides Pogba, let’s have a look at some more examples of the most prominent ‘captains without an armband’ in football right now –
Virgil van Dijk
Van Dijk’s record-shattering move from Southampton was quickly justified as he’s since gone on to become the cornerstone of one of the greatest teams in recent history. His ability, leadership qualities & towering presence has cemented his status as one of the best players in world football. He was out injured for the majority of last season and that played a part in Liverpool having a poor season, by their recent standards. Despite not being the formal captain of the team, Van Dijk’s impact on the team is crucial, nonetheless.
"Van Dijk is the lynchpin of our newfound defensive prowess; a cool and composed yet commanding presence who organises, guides and leads.— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) January 14, 2019
"A captain without an armband." ✊https://t.co/d7eajEishe
When the Brazilian stalwart joined Chelsea from PSG at the start of last season, he was seen as a spent force, and the move did not make a whole lot of sense, on paper. This was subsequently proven to be rubbish as he went to be a key factor in Chelsea’s resurgence under Thomas Tuchel, which ultimately culminated in their historic Champions League triumph. Long-time servant of the club Cesar Azpilicueta holds the armband at Stamford Bridge but Silva’s experience and ability have been instrumental, as well.
Looks like He has been playing with us for ages. Gives absolutely everything on the pitch, so passionate about the club and a proper leader. The captain without the armband. @tsilva3 I salute! pic.twitter.com/7AbhciaB1S— Kojo Oduro🏆🏆 (@Qwateng) May 18, 2021
The Dane played a heroic role in the tragic events regarding Christian Eriksen that unfolded in Denmark’s opening game against Finland at the Euros. Under his leadership, the Danes made it to the semifinal of the tournament, which was seen as quite an achievement.
His club, AC Milan also stands to benefit from the leadership qualities the 32-year-old possesses. Kjaer has been a mainstay at the heart of their defence since his move from Sevilla and the San Siro faithful are optimistic about the current season. Current club captain Alessio Romagnoli may very well be on his way out of the club in 2022, and either of Calabria and Kjaer could be handed the armband.
📰 #Tuttosport: Decisive and fundamental for Pioli and Hjulmand. Simon #Kjaer is a captain without an armband who is one of the undisputed leaders in #Milan. Now he is a candidate for the Ballon d’Or. pic.twitter.com/fhpq9G4wvR— Milan Posts (@MilanPosts) October 11, 2021
Marc-Andre Ter Stegen
FC Barcelona’s number one has been their mainstay between the sticks since he joined the club 7 years ago. The German international is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and has been a key part of Barcelona & Germany’s successes over the years.
Ter Stegen’s goalkeeping abilities, built & reliability has meant that club captain Sergio Busquets doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of leading the team on his own. Times have been difficult for the Blaugrana and their fans will be hoping their leaders step up and steer their club through these testing waters.
❗Marc Andre ter Stegen: the captain without an armband.— Barça Buzz (@Barca_Buzz) March 17, 2021
• The German has not stopped growing since arriving in Barcelona and his leadership remains important in each game. His voice is the one that resounds the most on the playing field.#FCB 🇩🇪
Via: @sport pic.twitter.com/NdBIzC8ouW
A tough-tackling midfielder that also possesses a serious passing & shooting range is exactly what Xhaka brought to Arsenal when he signed from Monchengladbach.
His leadership qualities and his warrior-like mentality are exactly what Arsenal seems to be craving for right now. Over the years, we’ve seen Xhaka put in inspirational performances not only for the Gunners but also for the Swiss National Team, of which he is the captain. He was instrumental in Switzerland reaching the quarterfinals of the Euros.
Jordan Henderson (for England)
The former Sunderland man is the captain of Liverpool and has been one of the driving forces in their resurgence under Jurgen Klopp. Henderson, throughout his career, has always been an underrated player and has had to face a lot of criticism.
However, the managers that he has played under have often trusted him and he’s been an influence under all of them. For England, he has been one of the main men under Gareth Southgate. His drive & determination coupled with his ability to add goals from midfield are just some of the qualities that make him so important to his manager. Henderson played a major role in his country reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final in Russia where his performances in midfield received a lot of plaudits.
In the recent edition of the Euros where England made it all the way to the final, Henderson was called up by Southgate, despite not being 100% fit, for his leadership qualities and presence in the dressing room.
Hendo is England's captain without the armband pic.twitter.com/WysyWYQ9bP— Liverpool FC News (@LivEchoLFC) July 12, 2021
If his commanding performances for Denmark at the Euro 2020 weren’t enough to understand the value of Hojbjerg, how about the recognition from the likes of Pep Guardiola & Jose Mourinho – two of the greatest managers of the modern era.
The Dane played under the pair at Bayern & Tottenham respectively and they have praised him for his technical ability, leadership qualities, and being a driving force.
Coming through the ranks at Brondby, he moved to Bayern and subsequently to Southampton, where he developed into one of the best midfielders in the country.
Mourinho brought him to Tottenham & developed his game in his vision – something that has proven beneficial to the North London club even after the Portuguese’s departure. Still only 26, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has shown maturity beyond his years and is expected to get better and better.
Jose on Hojbjerg:— The Spurs Express (@TheSpursExpress) October 22, 2020
“We were having a laugh at half-time and we were all calling him Zidane. Very nice but don't do [those pirouettes] again Pierre! He's a very good player, a good leader and a captain without the armband."#COYS #THFC pic.twitter.com/TzVr1U7M8u