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injury the following week, and despite being rushed back into the fray against West Bromwich Albino, the midfielder was withdrawn at half time as United struggled.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.