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.