In a season of progress, Ander Herrera’s influence grows most

March 15, 2017 Tags: Reads 19 comments
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There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.

While Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba are the poster boys of Mourinho’s United, Herrera is the player who personifies his manager most on the pitch. When the Portuguese coach first joined Chelsea in 2004, he was characterised as charmingly arrogant,  but a man who also commanded respect. The same kind of paradoxical traits that can be seen in United’s number 26.

"The Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, but his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters."

While the Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters. Herrera’s penchant for a tackle, frequent protestations to the referee, and that face of innocence when pulled up for fouls, infuriates rivals. They are the same traits that endear the player to United supporters. Like Mourinho, Herrera has an infuriating quality: you either hate to love him, or love to hate him.

Mourinho’s success in raising Herrera’s game should not be underestimated. The hardest task in management is perhaps not getting the best out of star players, but raising the game of the less prominent among a manager’s the squad. While Antonio Valencia deserves plaudits for his improvement this season, it is Herrera who is now the most important cog in United’s machine.

Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera

Under Van Gaal, the Spaniard was used as a creative midfielder with plenty of license to get forward. Mourinho, in contrast, has harnessed Herrera’s industry, and perfected it. By deploying Herrera in a two-man central midfield alongside Pogba, or in a three with Carrick as regista, the Spaniard’s role has become that of the destroyer. His tireless running and willingness to harass the opposition gives Pogba the license to roam and Carrick the freedom to dictate.

Every successful team contains a player of this ilk. Leicester City’s fall after N’Golo Kanté’s departure in the summer, or Liverpool’s poor form since Jordan Henderson suffered an injury offer evidence of the point.

While strikers’ goals win games and goalkeepers’ saves rescue them, the Premier League is evolving into a battle for midfield control. The shift by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs to a 3-4-3 system, highlights the the importance of controlling the central third of the pitch. It seems highly likely that Kanté will be named the PFA Player of the Year for his title-winning impact on Chelsea this season.

Herrera Kanté Henderson Wanyama
Tackles p/g 3 3.6 3.7 2.7
Interceptions p/g 3 2.3 1.7 1.2
Fouls p/g 1.7 1.5 1.2 2
Key Passes p/g 1.3 0.6 1.3 1
Pass Success % 88.1 88.3 85.9 87.5
WhoScored Rating 7.44 7.24 7.30 7.18

Herrera’s importance was highlighted by his dismissal against the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. While any player loss will have a detrimental effect on the team’s performance, it was telling just how much United regressed without the Spaniard’s presence.

The central duo of Pogba and Herrera had adequately matched Kanté and Nemanja Matić until the 34th minute when the United midfielder collected a somewhat dubious second yellow of the evening. Marouane Fellaini was brought on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add more steel to United’s midfield, but the game was already gone. The Belgian showed good strength, but Kanté’s dynamism could only have been matched by Herrera, and Chelsea dominated for the rest of the game, claiming 72.6 per cent possession by the end of the match.

Despite Herrera’s ability to break up play, the Spaniard also possesses quality on the ball, enabling a smooth transition from defence to attack. With Carrick unable to impose himself on matches as his legs age, Herrera has taken on the mantle of the deep-lying playmaker when he is partnered by Pogba. The former Athletic Bilbao player has the industry and game awareness to drop deep and restart attacks, while still being able to get further forward in support of United’s attack.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Indeed, Ibrahimović’s winning goal against Southampton in the EFL Cup Final is a recent example of this dynamic approach. Herrera’s awareness to fill the vacated right-wing role enabled the midfielder to received the ball in space with enough time to pick out the Swede at the back-post.

Yet, it is not just Herrera’s quality that endears him to Mourinho and the fans. While most footballers profess their love to their employing club, none do it which the same honesty and genuine passion as the Spaniard. Herrera feels empathy with United’s vast support, an unusual quality in a sport where fans’ ability to relate to the stars is becoming ever more distant.

“When you are a Manchester United player and you know the history of this club, you have to respect the games that are for the fans,” Herrera once noted after an EFL Cup win over Manchester City.

“I feel it like them. I know I am not English and I am not from Manchester, but I really love this club and I have enjoyed my time here. I don’t want to be just one more player. I want to show that I am very happy here and I want to be here for as long as possible. United fans are always with the team and not every team can say that.”

On the field Herrera is not the replacement for Roy Keane that United has missed since 2005, but his ability to command the centre of the pitch, bark orders at teammates, and incite fear with a crunching tackle or few offers a hint of the past. Herrera may still look like a charming school prefect, but his tenacity is a remnant of the Irishman’s heyday.

The player’s leadership also means that many supporters view the Spaniard as United’s next club captain. After all, Herrera has the mental strength, skill, charisma, and empathy to do it. He also has Mourinho’s approval. The player not only understands supporters’ passion, but embraces it. After each home draw he vents his genuine frustration eloquently and honestly. When the team wins, he does it with the fans. At a time when footballers are at a distance, the Spaniard thinks and plays like those on the terraces.

Data: WhoScored


MunroeL - March 15, 2017 Reply

Great article. Love Herrera.

NazManUnited - March 15, 2017 Reply

From day one I said Herrera will become as Great as Scholes! I’m loving his development to become our captain.

NazManUnited - March 15, 2017 Reply

LVG was a fool he didn’t trust any of the players to play footie with instinct

NazManUnited - March 15, 2017 Reply

Under LVG MUFC were Robots United, notice no I, the players had Intelligence trained out of them

michael perrins - March 15, 2017 Reply

it is very good to see other utd fans understand the ablity of herrera. and what he brings. and I think he is the most underestimated player in the league.

Will McCarthy - March 15, 2017 Reply

Utter nonsense. He is as average as premier league players get. I can think of ten United midfielders over the last 15 years that are vastly superior. If Herrera is the future of United as many seem to think, expect 20 years of mediocrity. Replacing top quality players with good players is still a drop in standards. He lacks presence, is always liable for a card and absolutely doesnt provide the cover that the centre halves need. Seriously, shake your heads, he is mediocre, just like Henderson, Dembele, Romeo and James McCarthy. No better, no worse. Just average.

subterranean steve - March 16, 2017 Reply

So name these ten players who are ‘vastly superior’.

stephen - March 20, 2017 Reply

Someone added Dembele on the list of mediocre players? I am out of here. #CaptainHerrera

Denton Davey - March 15, 2017 Reply

We’re still not seeing the best from either Ander Herrera or Paul Pogba because they need to be balanced with another midfield playmate. Plus, of course, both would be much, much better if they weren’t tasked with having to compensate for the flakiness of the central defensive pairings -just think what these guys could be with the security of Rio/Vidic behind them.

I think that, having had a season to see what he’s got (and what he hasn’t got), Jo$e will be fairly ruthless in paring the dead wood and recruiting several more highly-talented recruits. That’s hardly rocket science but with disasters-waiting-to-happen like MrJones and BigManSmalling (or Matteo Damian), the job of orchestrating UTD’s midfield is a hopeless task at the time-being.

Great teams are built on a solid defensive footing, and this year’s UTD team is built on sand. The talent is there with Herrera and Pogba but they just can’t do it alone – provide them with a playmate and we’ll see much more dominating performances from both of them AND also from the team.

yunglaw - March 15, 2017 Reply

Love him so much….

sylvester - March 15, 2017 Reply

With rio and vidic at the back Herera will kill opponent

reds4life - March 16, 2017 Reply

Wow whoever says he is average doesn’t know football @all.

Will McCarthy - March 16, 2017 Reply

There you go. False bias. The curse of the internet. Somebody doesn’t agree with you, so ‘you don’t know football’. Lol.

Perfect Kanji - March 16, 2017 Reply

Herrera is improving and watch out next season.Mourinho has polished the rough edges he will excel.

Will McCarthy - March 16, 2017 Reply

Bog standard mate, no matter what the stats say. The stats said he was better than Kante this season. He’s not on the same planet. Veron, Scholes, Carrick, Keane, Fletcher, Giggs, Anderson (at his best), Fletcher, Mata and Blind. All have done the job wither better or at least on the same level. The fact is that he invariably flatters to deceive. He’s relentlessly sideways and backwards a la Ray Wilkins, even when he has the opportunity to play offensively. He has that stupid habit of passing the ball 5 yards, then running frantically into another position to receive the ball, only to pass it backwards again. He lacks any sense of presence and I can assure you, no opposition will be flinching in the dressing room in dread of facing him. Let’s be honest here. He has batted his eyelids at the support with his United history schtick and loads of you have fallen for it. Its called flattery and he’s mugged you. I guarantee you that for as long as he is United’s ‘lynchpin’ in midfield, we won’t win a premiership.

Nikhil - March 16, 2017 Reply

How many Fletchers mate? Veron. A good player, but was utter shite after his move to the Premier League. Blind in midfield? Really now? Anderson? You for fucking real? Giggs, Mata I mean why are you even comparing them with Herrera? Neither of them played the role Herrera has in the team now.
Whatever you say about him, he bosses the United midfield, he breaks up play and is the perfect transition between our defense and attack. The stats don’t lie and if you have been watching any of United’s football this season you wouldn’t say he’s mediocre at best. He runs the midfield, he brings the team together and is the vocal presence United has lacked for years.
Yes, he’s loved by everyone but it ain’t no flattery it’s for the genuine passion that he exudes in a United shirt. Herrera is by far the closest thing we’ve come to replacing Keane and he’s only going to get better. And yes he is certain captaincy material and could very lead United to a title or even more. Enough talk, he’ll prove the rest.

Will McCarthy - March 16, 2017 Reply

As I said, either at the same level or superior. Giggs did in fact often play a central midfield role at times, with greater distinction than Herrera. Fletcher was magnificent for three years with Carrick in the 00’s. Blind did a superior defensive midfield job for LVG. Anderson at his best was far superior to Herrera. But as you say, enough talking. United will win nothing of consequence with Herrera as ‘the’ midfielder. Just remember where you read it.

Oli M - March 16, 2017 Reply

Fully agree with Will. Never in my time supporting United have I come across a more overrated player. He has a horrible attitude and habit of getting booked, and yet he is the only player that can come away from a red card with additional praise. Unbelievable. He may be passionate, but that’s his best attribute. His win % is worse than the team average for the season and he is ridiculously error prone and yet somehow impervious to criticism…

Osman - March 16, 2017 Reply

His stupidity cost United a place in fa cup semis, though. He takes too many silly yellow cards.

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