There is something about Ander Herrera’s style that feels intrinsically Mourinho-esq. The sharp eye for a pass and sharper appetite for the tackle; the high-energy modern approach and speed across the ground. Yet, the Spaniard has featured in just eight Manchester United matches this season, and only three in the Premier League as a starter. It is incongruous. That pattern might be about to change though, with the 27-year-old having successfully claimed a role as José Mourinho’s first-choice defensive midfielder.
At the weekend, Herrera enjoyed another understated yet effective performance at the base of the Reds’ midfield, enabling Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford to attack at will. Mourinho’s side may have drawn, at home, to bottom-placed Stoke City, but the side created 24 chances. It was in no little part to Herrera’s new role and the dynamic edge it offers the team. The Spaniard was even better in United’s comprehensive victory over Leicester City, making a key defensive and attacking contribution.
While Herrera does not rack up huge defensive numbers – in aggregate around six tackles interceptions, and clearances per match – he has impressed with a mature all-round game. The former Atletico Bilbao player covers the ground better than Marouane Fellaini, offers a more dynamic passing range than Morgan Schneiderlin, and though he is not in Michael Carrick’s class in terms of reading the game, Herrera is no mug in this department either. Crucially, Herrera is quicker to react in transitional phases than any of the aforementioned trio.
It is little wonder Herrera is enjoying a first call up to the Spain squad, having previously played at under-19, under-20 and under-23 for the national team. It is a surprise it has taken this long, although no shame given the midfield quality in depth available to the La Roja.
New life, then, for a player acquired at the beginning of Louis van Gaal’s regime, but never fully trusted by the Dutchman. Herrera spent much of the past two seasons in and out of the team, never gaining a proper rhythm let alone a settled role. The Spaniard has played at number 10, eight and wide on the right for United, but racked up just 36 league starts over two campaigns.
"There is something about Ander Herrera’s style that feels intrinsically Mourinho-esq. The sharp eye for a pass and sharper appetite for the tackle; the high-energy modern approach and speed across the ground. Yet, the Spaniard has featured in just eight United matches this season. It is incongruous."
The player’s time with United could have ended this summer, with Mourinho recruiting Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for more than £100 million. Forced to adapt or be cast aside in the Portuguese manager’s rapid evolution, Herrera has found a place in the team to the surprise of some. Mourinho, though, is impressed with both the player’s multi-functional skill set and the increased performance levels over last season.
“The players are good players but some of them perform better with the ideas of a different manager,” said Mourinho this week. “He can be an important player for us, because we play with four attacking players plus Paul who likes a lot to go to different positions, to try and create. We need a player like Ander because he is very fast on the defensive transition, he can give us the security we need, especially against fast counter attacks.”
But the new role is not a limiting role. Against Stoke, Herrera nominally lined-up as United’s deepest midfielder, with the quartet of Pogba, Lingard, Mata and Rashford ahead. Yet, the Spaniard also strongly supported United’s attacking pattern down the right, mirroring Pogba, who attacked towards the left. Herrera completed more accurate passes than his more illustrious colleague as well, 82 to 59. If not exactly a quarter-back then Herrera was the starting point for many United attacks, not just the key man in defensive phases.
The challenge now is to cement a role in the team ahead of Fellaini, Carrick and Schneiderlin, possibly in that order. Certainly, in the early part of the campaign, Mourinho preferred the Belgian, whose physicality has also proven appealing to David Moyes and Van Gaal. It is a red herring; the trade-off being poor use of the ball and limited coverage across the turf. Neither is problem for Herrera, although that is no guarantee Fellaini will not come back into the side when the dynamic is different, especially away from home.
Schneiderlin is the most obvious direct comparison to Herrera, although not necessarily a competitor. Neither a defensive midfielder, nor a playmaker, the Frenchman’s best football has come in a box-to-box role. Some might say the same of the Spaniard. Yet, Schneiderlin has played just 95 minutes this season – 90 coming against Feyenoord in a disastrous loss at De Kuip. Meanwhile, Carrick’s age has finally caught up with the Geordie. That new one-year contract a nod to the player’s long service at Old Trafford.
For now the role is rightly Herrera’s and the player’s attitude stands him in good stead. “I am an energetic player, I can recover balls for the team, I can share my spirit with my team-mates and that’s what I try to do,” he said back in September. “I’m going to be there when the manager wants me to play.”
Mourinho could once again enter the market with the January transfer window looming. After all, his squad is short of a real defensive midfielder – a weakness Herrera is patching, but not one for which he was brought to the club. Should United raid the market once again, Herrera may be quickly relegated to a role as Pogba’s understudy. Mourinho’s view on the long-term options is for now unclear.
Neither is it the role Herrera envisaged when he joined United in a £24 million deal two summers ago. The wish then, as it may be now, was to slot into a more offensive role and become one of “the best midfielders in the world like Paul Scholes.”
For now, neither player nor manager can complain. He is performing as rarely before.