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.
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.
Much like fans of a certain character from a certain TV show, Manchester United supporters have been left wondering, in recent weeks, why the often excellent Ander Herrera has been cut down by the powers that be.
As was the case for a popular shaggy haired, sword wielding prodigal son from the world of fiction, Herrera has enjoyed a form of cult status at Old Trafford. Like his television counterpart, it has left many baffled as why Herrera has been dropped from a leading role just when he appeared to be thriving in it.
Tasked with repairing the damage inflicted during the mercifully short David Moyes era, Louis van Gaal’s maiden Old Trafford season was a predictably frustrating affair. Despite the Dutchman delivering on his promise of Champions League football, United’s footballing identity remained conspicuous by its absence – lost amid ever changing team formations and a decidedly mixed, yet eye-wateringly expensive, summer transfer window.
From the outset Herrera looked very much like a United-type player. Despite appearing a little unpolished at times, the Spaniard marries tenacity with technical prowess wonderfully. It immediately endeared him to those on the terraces.
Unfortunately for Herrera, the early weeks of van Gaal’s tenure, in which United flourished in attack, proved to be a red herring. The unspeakable capitulation at Leicester City heralded a change in tack from the Dutch manager, who was wounded when United shipped four goals in 20 minutes. To continue a theme – it could be described as the footballing equivalent of the Red Wedding.
Herrera was sidelined with a rib injury the following week, and despite being rushed back into the fray against West Bromwich Albino, the midfielder was withdrawn at half time as United struggled. Regardless of his continued promise – turning in a man of the match display in the 3-0 victory over Hull City – the midfielder found himself deprived of a starting berth.
The turgid football on show through the middle portion of last season did little to appease exasperated supporters, many of whom felt that Herrera could breathe life into a flat United side. Such was the clamour for his reintroduction that Van Gaal felt compelled to clarify his reasons for continually omitting the £27 million signing from Athletic Bilbao – declaring that Herrera needed to raise his game before he would be considered.
“I have to compare him people like Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, for example.” Van Gaal explained. “They all have a high level, so he has to improve.”
Herrera did not start a league game between 2 December and 21 February, where he returned to score in the defeat at Swansea City. The Spaniard’s restoration to the starting line-up coincided with United’s best period of the season, with Herrera flourishing alongside fellow countryman Juan Mata, as the Reds swept aside Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City en route to a top four finish.
Perhaps recalling the exploits of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke, the Mata/Herrera partnership roused a United support in need of some on-pitch entertainment. Not only was their pairing exciting to watch, but it was effective too.
Van Gaal’s obsession with positional discipline did not marry well with Herrera’s tendency to roam the pitch, yet pairing him with Mata on the right of United’s midfield removed that element, without inhibiting the Basque’s effectiveness. Such was Herrera’s understanding with his compatriot, that he seemed happy to occupy the right centre-midfield berth. It was almost child-like to watch – akin to two best mates keeping the ball between them on the school pitch – and yet it worked. Tottenham, Liverpool and City all succumbed to a rejuvenated United side, and despite a shaky final few games, the Reds returned to Europe’s top table.
The story of post-Ferguson United has been littered with plot twists – ranging from the fairytale beginnings of Anthony Martial, to the tragedy (or comedy, depending on your persuasion) of Radamel Falcao. In comparison Herrera’s treatment is more of a mystery.
Although the Spaniard was arguably United’s top outfield performer, alongside Ashley Young, following his restoration to the side early in the year, Herrera’s second season in Manchester has adopted a frustrating parallel to his debut year; consistently impressive when given the opportunity, yet still bizarrely confined to the bench.
The arrivals of Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin, coupled with the continued presence of the evergreen Michael Carrick, has substantially expanded Louis van Gaal’s midfield options. Yet, Herrera offers something entirely different to his teammates, not to mention his telepathic understanding with Juan Mata.
The Spaniard’s exile from the side – and fans’ widespread annoyance with it – bears similarity to the cringe worthy “Free Shinji” campaign, which was launched in response to the perceived unfair treatment of Shinji Kagawa under David Moyes. The Japan international was a rare footballing anomaly in that his reputation seemed to grow with every game in which he did not feature, and shrink when he did.
Kagawa is an undoubtedly talented footballer, yet despite all those deft touches and clever movement, he was rarely a decisive factor throughout the course of a game. The same cannot be said of Herrera.
The 26-year-old from Bilbao possesses all Kagawa’s qualities and more – most crucially his ability to positively influence a match in United’s favour. Kagawa was unable to usurp Wayne Rooney from the number 10 role at United, but the United captain has slipped into a seemingly terminal decline since then, while at 26, Herrera is at his peak.
The Spaniard is not a world class footballer as yet, nor a natural 10, but he has demonstrated his influence as United’s most forward thinking midfielder. For all the Red Devil’s impressive possession statistics, the tip of the attack is often blunt, due in no small part to Rooney’s ineffectiveness. Despite his misgivings, Van Gaal would be well served to allow Herrera to function as the link between the experienced midfield base and the youthful forward line.
As winter approaches, the fixtures will accumulate and United’s title credentials will be given thorough examination – with some considerable foes yet to be met. After the massacre at the Emirates, much focus will be placed on United’s defensive solidity, but offensively Van Gaal’s side was just as lacking. Although a measure of control was regained in the second period, did United ever really look like recovering? Only the most blinkered supporters will say ‘yes’.
Herrera will not repair all of United’s deficiencies, but the Spaniard does not deserve to be left out in the cold while the ailing Rooney clings to his iron throne of immunity.
Winter is coming. It’s time for a change.
Ander Herrera is central to United’s midfield cause, but can he stay in the team?
“It was a great day, one of the best in my professional career,” Ander Herrera told MUTV after Saturday’s victory over Aston Villa at Old Trafford. Not only did the former Athletic Bilbao midfielder score twice in a match for the first time in seven seasons as a pro, but it will, perhaps, be remembered as the game in which Herrera cemented a permanent place in the Manchester United side. Far too late, some might add.
Indeed, Louis van Gaal’s seeming reluctance to rely on the Basque-born player for much of the campaign has come at the price of significant supporter bemusement. After all, the £29 million player’s qualities were hardly unknown to United supporters before last summer’s acquisition. Fast over the ground, tenacious in the tackle, with a beautifully crisp and creative range of passing, Herrera possesses many of the qualities that United lacked last season. In truth, for many seasons prior to that.
Yet, Herrera has featured in just 1239 minutes across the Premier League campaign under Van Gaal: the 14th most used player in the United squad. Or, to put it another way, Herrera has started just 12 of United’s 31 Premier League games this season and only twice – against Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur – when United has faced a direct rival for European football. Whatever his qualities, this is a player not always trusted by Van Gaal despite the hefty price tag.
That observation may be changing, not least because of the Spaniard’s fine performances in recent weeks; many view United’s uplift in form and Herrera’s integration into central midfield as more than a touch symbiotic. The 25-year-old has started the last five Premier League matches – featuring in all but seven minutes as United secured maximum points against Sunderland, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Aston Villa.
Herrera’s numbers look increasingly good as he has formed an integral part of the side. He has, with four, contributed the joint-second most number of assists in United’s league campaign and the fourth most number of goals, with five. Only Juan Mata, Antonio Valencia and Michael Carrick boast a higher pass completion rate this season.
United supporters quickly took to the former Real Zaragoza midfielder even if Van Gaal’s reticence led to just six Premier League starts before Christmas. Indeed, it was far from an auspicious start to an Old Trafford career. Herrera was hauled off two-thirds of the way through his début – United’s home loss to Swansea City on the opening day of the campaign. While he scored at Queens Park Rangers, Herrera was an prominent – and largely disappointing – member of United’s midfield in the season-changing 5-3 defeat at Leicester City.
Injury, and a month on the sidelines with a rib problem through September and October was a major setback, but, in hindsight, Herrera’s return at West Bromwich Albion proved to be even more devastating to the player’s immediate prospects. The player’s 36 touches brought little in the way of the sharp passing to which fans are now accustomed; an obvious lack of fitness drew the inevitably swift half-time substitution.
If injury and a unsuccessful return brought Herrera a period on the bench, then other’s misfortune proved to be the player’s gain. United’s too, with an ineffective Robin van Persie succumbing to an ankle injury in the final stages of United’s 2-1 defeat at Swansea in February. The Dutchman’s five games on the sidelines have brought 15 league points and close-to-guaranteed Champions League football next season. Herrera’s role in a three-man central midfield, with Van Gaal switching to a 4-3-3/4-5-1 system, has been critical.
In scoring twice against Villa Herrera inevitably stole the headlines. But there is greater depth to the player’s game than goals alone: a 96 per cent pass completion, a further chance created, together with those two goals from two strikes on target. Herrera also put in four tackles, completed one interception and another clearance. It is a pattern of attacking prowess and defensive energy that is mirrored across many recent games.
Yet, even during months in which the player’s United future was questioned, Herrera has maintained the levelled-headed persona that has won many supporters at Old Trafford. It is an even personality that one suspects will stand Herera in good standing with the notoriously combustable Van Gaal.
“I feel happy and lucky because I can play at a stadium like Old Trafford. I feel that the supporters are supporting me,” he said over the weekend.
“Even when I was not playing, I was also happy. I am at Manchester United. I feel really lucky to be here. The manager has to decide who is playing or not but we have to respect always the decision he makes. The manager wants the best for the team, the best for us and we have to follow him always.
“It’s my dream to be here for a long time because I am in the right team, in the right league and in the right country. I want to stay at the club for many years to come.”
And yet the player has completed just seven Premier League games, with Herrera substituted in a further five. The promise that provoked an 18-month transfer chase and a £29 million fee has seemingly not always matched the manager’s expectations. Not least because Herrera joined the club as a player seen by many in Spain as a natural ‘number 10’, rather than the ‘eight’ he has become over the past two months.
“I have to compare him with people like Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata, so that is difficult,” claimed Van Gaal in February. “They all have a high level, so he has to improve.
“The other reasons are the players who are in his positions. In this system for example – what we are playing now – that is Mata and that is Angel Di Maria. It is difficult to compete but he did already know that the moment he signed for Manchester United.”
Van Gaal’s belated decision to integrate both Mata and Herrera into the side has proven hugely successful, with the pair each scoring a double in rennet games. Yet, while Van Persie’s injury – and Radamel Falcao’s form – has prompted a tactical switch to a single-striker system, it is, perhaps, Angel Di Maria’s red card against Arsenal in the FA Cup that ensured Herera’s starting place against Spurs, Liverpool and Villa.
This is an observation that provokes an obvious question: will Van Persie’s return to fitness and Di Maria’s productive cameo against the Midlanders prompt another change in Van Gaal’s thinking? Integration of either back into the United side may well disrupt the Mata-Herrera axis.
Many fear that it would not be to United’s advantage. Perhaps not to the weekend’s goalscorer either.