Open letter from Ander Herrera to Louis van Gaal
Disclaimer: This is not a real letter, but a product of the writer’s imagination.
A big month ahead of us, wouldn’t you say, Gaffer? The Hammers entertain us over the weekend, and then Burnley turn up for a mid-week romp. Still, a cursory glance at our fixtures this month would tell you that we could very well walk into March having won five on the trot.
Before you fly off the handle, boss, bemoaning my impudence, let me say something. This is a very academic exercise, reserved for the inner recesses of my mind – a happier place where I actually have the balls to write you a letter. Which is why concerns of language have been thrown out the window – the idea is to express my thoughts free of any boundaries that would exist in real life.
Now that we have that out of the way, let me return to a quite glorious prospect – 12 points from four Premier League games, and a place in the FA Cup quarter-finals. I can almost see you swelling up in anger, crumpling up this letter now and banishing me to the reserves, for deriding that cardinal rule of sport – one game at a time.
Well, for what it is worth, you should know – that glorious prospect is probably not going to materialise. You’re a pragmatic man, Boss, you know that we haven’t exactly been playing well of late. And every Mancunian worth his coveted Red jersey has been wondering why Ander Herrera has not been playing.
Now I know that referring to yourself in the third person is something you consider to be your own personal domain – even if Zlatan begs to differ. I was just trying to talk your language, boss – what I now realise is another big mistake. So now I will try to appeal to you the only way I know how – by telling you my story in Manchester.
I left the city of my birth, the club I’d helped to a coveted Champions League spot, for a United team that was in the doldrums. The chance to represent this proud club is not something one turns down. For even though United had been interested in me for quite a while now, I was delighted when the new manager – a certain Louis van Gaal – sanctioned my transfer; knowing, as he did, that he had a virtually unlimited chequebook at his disposal. That he would entertain the club’s long-standing interest in me knowing that he could pick from a who's who of world football to represent his Red Devils.
This was a Van Gaal who was fresh from his heroics at the 2014 World Cup, where he garnered more attention than the very players whom he sent out to do his bidding, as the Oranje powered their way to the semi-finals. A World Cup where his Dutch team ruthlessly tore apart a Spanish team that owed a lot of their recent success to the man in the opposing dug-out. The incomparable Xavi and Iniesta were under your tutelage when they were coming through the ranks at Barcelona, and their stupendous rise to the very pinnacle of world football owes a great deal to your keen eyes and vision.
A little later on, Bastian Schweinsteiger was everywhere you looked in the World Cup final, a marauding presence in the heart of midfield that steered the German team to the ultimate prize in world football. A winger who was turned into the very definition of a midfield general in your capable hands - Joachim Loew for one, will never be able to thank you enough.
It is impossible to see these titans of the modern game and not wish that for yourself. Not when the man who has stoked those flames within them, given them their wings, is in the dug-out beside you. And that’s just it, boss – to sit on that bench, watching you egg on my team-mates, is almost unbearable.
Forget about the so-called experts, the fans who want me starting week-in, week-out. Forget about the incessant opinions that only serve to stoke the flames of your resolve to do things your way. I now speak to the man who has shaped the destinies of two clubs that demand the utmost respect in the game today – Barcelona and Bayern Munich. I speak to the man who was smart enough to immerse himself in the culture of these two giants, and bring to the fore the young talent that would go on to shape their respective teams for years to come.
I am not so arrogant enough to claim that I can match up to those illustrious names just yet, but I sure would appreciate the chance to try. I have whole-heartedly embraced the culture here, in a new country, and in a new league, because I wish to understand what it truly means to play for United. To that end, I have always insisted on giving my interviews in English, because I feel a direct connection to the fans here is such a boost to any player – such is their affection and support.
Perhaps this is why the fans have responded so well to my limited time on the pitch – I feed off their enthusiasm and vigour. They have used many words to describe me – “fast, forward-thinking, risk-taker” etc, and I believe that is what they expect of their attacking midfielders.
United have long been a team that has been quick in their transitioning, so very direct and entertaining. And it has been this exciting, off-the-cuff, heart-on-your-sleeve football that has garnered the club millions of supporters the world over.
Your statements on the type of football we should be playing have been very clear – “We need to play forward passes with no risk." And even as the fans groaned at your cautiousness, I do understand where it comes from, boss.
That defeat at Leicester was the worst moment of your time in Manchester. It was the beginning of a more cautious United that prioritised possession and control more than cut and thrust. Personally, I am disappointed with my abject performance in the first half against West Brom, all the way back in October – a performance that saw you replace me with Marouane Fellaini at half-time. And while I am glad that he scored that night, to kick-start a mini-revival of sorts in his own career, I am looking for the same in mine today.
I am looking to prove to you that I deserve a regular starting spot in your midfield. During our tour of the United States in the pre-season, you had said: “The most important thing is they have to know why we do things and when they do, the football player is not playing intuitively. A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something.”
I am not one to question your authority or your knowledge of what this team needs. But you have always been a practical man who is willing to change things around when a certain game-plan is not showing results. Even if you remain wedded to a word that is muttered in hushed tones in Manchester today – “Philosophy”. Perhaps a little intuition is what we need right now? Arsenal, Tottenham, Southampton and Liverpool are all in the mix for a top four place this season – and have been playing some delightful football of late.
We have been stuck in a rut for a while now, and our work in the final third lacks any of the penetration or guile that one would expect from such stellar names. Sterile possession offers us a measure of comfort, yes – but it is not what has made United what it is. Our attacking quartet, as decorated as it is, has appeared far too boxy and predictable.
You have tried a number of formations - a very Dutch 4-3-3, a racy 4-4-2 diamond, and the current incumbent, the 3-4-1-2. Without going into detail about these systems - if only because whatever I have to say will only pale into insignificance compared to your knowledge – United need a presence that will feed the jaw-dropping talent that lines up for us every weekend.
A man you would get along with very well, a certain Marco Bielsa (now working wonders at Marseille), had assured me that my best position is as a Number 8. A certain Number 4 at Chelsea is doing wonders in this Number 8 role this season, but even the Portuguese master in place there owes a debt of gratitude towards you. I have my own debt to pay to Mr. Bielsa; and now I place myself in the hands of another master. Mould me into this team, this vision of yours, and take me to that plane that you have reserved for the very best that come under your aegis.
Let’s do this the United way – all bite and cut and thrust, tearing into the opposition at will. Let’s have the opposition defences pinned back in their defensive third, as we scythe through them, showing them the game that has made this team the most successful one of the Premier League era. Let’s add a glorious new chapter to the Van Gaal era, one that will cement your place in the annals of our great game.
And maybe one day, not too far from now, the world will envy our beaming faces as we lift that Premier League title. After all, that is the United way.