The time has come for Ander Herrera to prove his worth to Jose Mourinho
Manchester United's impressive start to the season continued in the Champions League as they won their first group stage fixture against FC Basel 3-0 at Old Trafford with goals from Fellaini, Lukaku and Rashford, but the win came at a heavy cost. Record signing Paul Pogba limped off in the 19th minute with a tight hamstring to be replaced by Fellaini.
What seemed a precautionary substitute by Mourinho turned out to be every United fan's worst nightmare come true. Pogba has been ruled out for at least a month, meaning that he will miss matches against Everton, Burton, Southampton, CSKA, Palace, and maybe Liverpool. It is a cause for concern for Mourinho, given the Frenchman's tremendous impact so far this season, having contributed two goals and three assists.
It's also a huge blow for him personally. Pogba had just started answering his critics with his performances, influencing every game with his pace, strength and passing. Nemanja Matic has enabled him to play up to his full attacking potential, and he has been in his best form since joining last season. One month is a long time in football, and he can only hope that it doesn't affect his rhythm when he returns.
Mourinho has predominantly played a 4-2-3-1 formation so far this season, with Matic anchoring the midfield and shielding the back four, and Pogba playing as a box-to-box midfielder. Unfortunately, this means that there is no place for Ander Herrera in the starting XI. The Spaniard had his best season in a red shirt last year, playing as part of a midfield three comprising himself, Michael Carrick and Pogba. He was the perfect foil for Pogba, covering him defensively whenever the Frenchman ventured forward.
Jose did try to incorporate the trio of Pogba, Matic and Herrera in a 4-3-3 against Stoke last weekend, but it turned out to be an unnecessary gamble, as United dropped their first points of the season in a 2-2 draw. He reverted back to 4-2-3-1 in the Champions League and promptly received a response with a 3-0 win.
However unfortunate Pogba's injury might be, it comes at the perfect time for Herrera. He is a versatile player who can also play as a midfield anchor, but the signing of Matic effectively ruled out any possibility of Mourinho using him in that position. Herrera is built more as a number 10, which was the role he played most often at Athletic Bilbao. After arriving at United, he modelled his game more along the lines of a holding midfielder with considerable success.
His defensive attributes improved significantly under Louis van Gaal, who played him in the role that Matic now plays. He made up for his lack of physicality with an acute defensive awareness. Instead of rushing into tackles or aerial duels, he broke up opposition attacks with interceptions, while also honing his natural attacking instincts.
Herrera can now slot directly into the Pogba shaped hole in United's midfield. He is similar to Pogba in the sense that they both excel in dictating the pace of the game, but the Spaniard offers more defensive solidity in spite of Pogba's far superior physical attributes. Mourinho will most likely bring him directly into the starting lineup against Everton in the weekend, and proceed further depending on how Herrera can adapt to his new responsibilities.
Carrick remains an option in midfield, but at 36 years old, is unlikely to feature regularly in the league. Fellaini, who substituted Pogba against Basel, put in a fantastic performance with a goal and an assist, continuing to defy his critics. But the Belgian's clumsiness on the ball, as opposed to the gracefulness of Herrera and Pogba, means that Mourinho will continue to use him as a super-sub late on in games to shut out the defence or push ahead for a goal.
Either way, Herrera is set to get his much-deserved chance to play in his natural position this weekend, and knowing his attitude and passion for the club, he will grab it with both hands. With United competing on four fronts this season, Mourinho will be delighted to have two world-class midfielders to call upon when needed. Herrera might not start every match when Pogba returns but will continue to remain an integral part of the first team squad.