It has become awfully passé, the long-running debate about Manchester United’s midfield deficiency. After all, it has been six long years since United signed a proper central midfielder. And no, Marouane Fellaini doesn’t count. This is not exactly United’s road to Damascus, but the club, it seems, has finally got the point as Ander Herrera joins from Athletic Club Bilbao this week for some £28.7 million.
And as if massive outlay is suddenly all the rage at United, Herrera’s acquisition was followed within 24 hours, by the long-anticipated capture of Southampton’s talented teenage left-back, Luke Shaw. It amounts to just under £60 million spent as executive vice chairman Ed Woodward finally flexes United’s financial muscle a year after a summer of transfer buffoonery ended with Fellaini stumbling through Old Trafford’s doors.
Woodward may not yet be vindicated in his approach, but there is just a smattering of redemption this week.
Herrera, a Spanish under-23 international, joins after three years at Athletic, where he has developed a reputation as one of the finest all-round midfielders in La Liga. The Basque is the quality of player that United should have acquired last summer, albeit it is a deal that Woodward attempted with abject failure. Instead, with Fellaini parachuting into United’s engine room on deadline day, the Reds simply exacerbated a problem six years in the making.
Herrera may not be an instant fix, although expectation is already high. Indeed, Herrera’s story is nuanced, with a narrative that does not yet hold an obvious conclusion. While the Basque’s talent, commitment and all-round quality should mean success at Old Trafford, he remains an understated presence that may yet be consumed by the intense focus that goes with becoming a United player.
After all, United is signing a player who is neither a youngster – he turns 25 before the season begins – nor one who has yet made it to the top of his profession. In truth, Herrera was some distance from making the Spanish World Cup squad and must step up both in class and delivery in the coming seasons.
Success at United could yet fast track the Basque into Vincente del Bosque’s post tiki-taka squad.
Those are the questions. The more positive story is the balance and all-round contribution Herrera is certain to bring to Louis van Gaal’s side. Here is player comfortable in several positions, but who has the raw ability to excel as the attacking heart of United’s new midfield.
Neat enough in possession, as befits this generation of Spaniards, unusually competitive off the ball, and incisive with his passing, Herrera should win over United’s fans with a bustling style. Though it might be foolish to expect instant gratification from a man not yet accustomed to the grandest stage.
“It’s is a dream come true,” said Herrera on Monday. “I’m excited to now be living in Manchester and I can’t wait for my first game. I am very happy and very proud to be at Manchester United, I can promise the fans I will be a good professional and work hard.”
Meanwhile, assistant manager Ryan Giggs called United’s new acquisition “a fantastic young player, with great energy and creativity” and one of “the brightest young prospects” in La Liga. “He will be a big hit with the United fans.”
Certainly, Herrera’s statistics point to a player who will contribute both to United’s attack and defence in the coming season. Though frequently deployed at ’10’ in Bilbao, and sometimes in wide positions, it is surely at eight – Fellaini’s supposed preferred role – that Ander will flourish under van Gaal in the Premier League.
The midfielder scored five from 68 shots on goal last season and made five further assists from 54 key passes in a solid offensive campaign for the Basque outfit. Almost 40 dribbles points to a player ready to carry the ball forward, although one who is sometimes wasteful with the final ball.
There is surely more to come. Whether these are the numbers to really excite from a ‘number 10’ at a Champions League club is an open question, although they are generally superior to any of United’s current central midfielders.
“An intelligent, quick attacking midfielder with a great brain and a superb attitude he is not dissimilar to his idol, Andres Iniesta,” claims Spanish pundit Guillermo Balague in the Telegraph.
“He can help organise the attack his main strength is in finding gaps to pass to forwards – only Cesc Fabregas gave more through balls last season than him.”
High praise indeed.
Defensively, although not widely expected to make a significant contribution in Athletic’s 4-2-3-1 system under Ernesto Valverde last season, Ander contributed 33 interceptions, 27 clearances and seven blocks, while making 161 tackles. It is a robust style that brought seven yellow cards in 33 league games last season.
Whatever the stats – and there is room for improvement in a £30 million player – it is to Herrera’s credit that a young player should emerge from a traumatic failed transfer; one that descended into farce amid claims that David Moyes did not rate the player and “impostors” had attempted to muscle in on the deal.
“The only person to eventually emerge from the whole sorry saga with any credit was the player himself,” adds Balague. “Herrera knuckled down to enjoy arguably his best ever season with Athletic Bilbao despite a first confusing two months.”
Meanwhile, Shaw arrives as something of a known commodity, having appeared more than 60 times for Southampton since his début in August 2012. He is not yet 19.
The premium on a £27 million fee is huge, of course – one that is now commonplace for a young English player. Yet, Shaw’s appearance for Roy Hodgson’s side in the recent dead rubber against Costa Rica at the World Cup is surely one of many international caps.
With that fee United’s management is betting on acquiring both genuine class in addition to making an investment in the future. The hope is that Shaw becomes the next Rio Ferdinand and not the next Fábio Coentrão. Either is possible; the smart money remains firmly on Shaw emulating the former.
Shaw appeared 35 times in the Premier League last season, making 72 tackles, 37 interceptions, four blocks and 150 clearances. That the Kingston-born youngster made no defensive errors over the season points not only to the player’s quality, but a rare maturity in one so young.
Patrice Evra completed more defensive actions for United last season, but – anecdotally at least – the Frenchman was also caught out of position with far greater frequency than the Southampton man. The evolutionary period from ageing star to young buck will surely not take long.
While the defensive side of Shaw’s game is already of international standard, he will be expected to contribute offensively if Evra is to be challenged in the campaign to come. Shaw contributed no goals and just one assist last season to Evra’s two and four respectively. Yet, Shaw made more crosses and completed more dribbles than the Frenchman.
Back in the boardroom Woodward will garner the praise he so conspicuously missed last summer for pulling off two high-profile deals with little melodrama. Each, with good argument, is over-priced – Herrera in comparison to midfielders of similar stature, Shaw simply for being English.
Yet, the price matters little if the pair contributes significantly to United’s return to Champions League football. After years of parsimony the ruling Glazer family can hardly risk United slipping further behind rivals this summer.
Yet, neither acqusition – perhaps significantly – is the global superstar Woodward so desperately seeks. United might just be the better for it – two players that will slot into the squad without compromising their talents or United’s balance in the process. Understated personalities, perhaps, but Herrera and Shaw promise plenty of genuine quality.