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.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]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.[/blockquote]
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.
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’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.
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.