Ander Herrera's rising importance to Manchester United
26th June 2014 - Ander Herrera was a fan favourite at a club that had qualified to compete with the Europe’s elite in a brand new stadium. However, he chose to complete his boyhood dream, joining a club in turmoil whose éclat seemed to be waning with the ticking of the clock, Manchester United. It seemed like a match made in heaven with Manchester United finally getting a genuinely talented midfielder after ages.
However, the reality was quite grim. The incompetent system of Van Gaal and the maladroit handling of Herrera in the system made him seem like a broken player. Devoid of his usually unwavering confidence, it seemed only a matter of time before Herrera’s subpar career at Manchester Utd would come to an end.
While Ander was clutching onto the final few straws, a lifeline came in an unlikely form. Mourinho was known for his likening for experience, physicality or raw talent in the midfield. Herrera had none of those qualities. Yet, 4 months later, he is one of the first names on the teamsheet and the most consistent player for the team.
Gary Neville has called him the only United player so far who has played well. Mourinho hasn’t minced words when praising him, calling his attitude as ‘phenomenal’. Herrera himself could be hours away from making his much awaited international debut for Spain. So how did all this happen?
Van Gaal was responsible for many of the adversities at the club during his two seasons in charge. The mismanagement and near-discard of Herrera was one of them. But he was also responsible for instilling discipline that Herrera lacked.
Herrera’s passing percentage often touched mid 70s and low 80s in his pre-United days. This has changed post his transfer. Consistently raking up a high 80s/low 90s passing percentage, the Spaniard has proved to be a stable midfielder who is a lot less error prone than he was during his pre-2014 days.
While this could have simply been due to LVG’s system which always encouraged a safe pass, his passing percentage hasn’t dropped under Mourinho even though the team’s possession levels have dropped by about 5%. His increasingly disciplined passing is mapped in the chart below:
Herrera often played as the advanced central midfielder since he lacked the tactical discipline to play deeper. At Athletic Bilbao, Iturraspe covered for him, while at Manchester United under Van Gaal, Carrick/Schneiderlin played the deeper role. Under Mourinho, the midfielder has reinvented himself as a defensive midfielder since the Manchester United manager wants his team to play with more focus on transitions than on possession, and Herrera has shown himself to be capable of playing perfectly in the system.
His defensive positioning has been responsible for Pogba getting a role with freedom that he requires.
His passing is quicker and sharper than Fellaini and he is more athletic than Carrick. Herrera is also never reluctant about getting stuck in and often wins headers against bigger opponents. This season, Herrera has made a total of 42 defensive actions, nearly 6 per match. That’s only 6 less than N’Golo Kante’s total of 48 defensive actions this season having played less than 50% of playing time than Kante!
When a naturally attacking player is shifted to the defensive side of the pitch, the most worrisome aspect is defensive positioning. Yet, somehow the transition has been seamless. Herrera’s positioning has been immaculate throughout the season so far.
Mourinho has been all praise for the rejuvenated star, “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. He can be an important player for us, because we play with four attacking players plus Paul (Pogba) who likes a lot to go to different positions, to try and create.”
Herrera’s strongest trait isn’t his passing or his tackling, it’s his endearing humility. Despite his mediocre performances over the past two seasons, he was still a consistent fan favourite amongst the Old Trafford faithful. He had a strong case against Van Gaal’s humiliating treatment, considering how he was consistently benched for more underperforming players. But he never grumbled and always toiled to earn back his place each time.
On the pitch, he has often been the embodiment of the staunchest of club supporters, never giving up and tirelessly covering more ground than anyone else. Mourinho has always been the manager who tries to make sure his players are more committed than the opposition ones and are ready to go that extra mile.
Herrera had this to say about the Manchester United boss, “Mourinho is very straight. He says what he thinks and he says it to your face. He says it when it is something we will like but he also says it when it is something we won't like. The team is enjoying the day to day. Training is very dynamic and everything is with the ball so the players never lose concentration — there are no really long sessions or long team talks. He really understands what a footballer needs which is 20 minutes of team talk and then you get down to it.”
At the risk of saying it too early, it looks like Herrera has finally found the perfect manager to kick-start his career again and Mourinho has found the perfect fulcrum for his Manchester United side.
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