This time last year, Ander Herrera’s Manchester United career appeared to be coming to an inevitable end.
The Spaniard impressed during his first campaign at Old Trafford but suffered a difficult second season as Louis van Gaal’s laborious philosophy lead to a downturn in collective performances. Central midfielders should never be judged on scoring goals but the fact Herrera managed three less last season than in 2014/15 despite playing ten games more epitomised how a young, promising talent arriving from Athletic Bilbao had seemingly regressed under van Gaal’s guidance.
So when rumours of Jose Mourinho coming to Old Trafford and bringing Paul Pogba with him in a world-record transfer deal became so frequent and loud they verged upon fact in the buildup to the 2016 summer window, Herrera must have inevitably feared the worst.
Diminutive, creative and slight in stature, in typical La Liga product style, the Spaniard was, on the surface at least, the antithesis of the perfect Mourinho midfielder. The powerful, marauding Pogba, meanwhile, had all the physical requisites to epitomise the Portuguese’s ethos.
But fast forward twelve months and Herrera is one of the first names on Mourinho’s team-sheet, outshining the most expensive player in the history of the beautiful game and waiting to take the captain’s armband from the likely departing Wayne Rooney – not only because of a noteworthy uplift in form, but also because of the way he’s come to perfectly represent the Mourinho mentality.
Even by the time the 2016/17 campaign kicked off, however, Herrera’s future wasn’t exactly clear. Before facing Leicester City at the end of September, he’d only actually started one Premier League fixture – a relatively routine 3-1 win over Bournemouth – in which the 27-year-old hardly imposed himself, finishing the match with just one tackle, no interceptions, no created chances, shots or successful dribbles to his name.
He’d completed the most passes and most touches of any United player that day, but his performance stunk of the passiveness that had made van Gaal so unpopular amongst the Old Trafford faithful. Mourinho seemed, quite rightly, unconvinced.
But the first Manchester Derby proved to be a bit of a turning point. As United found themselves overrun in midfield, Herrera was flung on for the second half with his side already 2-1 down. The Spaniard was unable to overturn the deficit but provided much-needed balance in the engine room alongside Pogba and Marouane Fellaini and not just because of his ability on the ball – likely more importantly to Mourinho, his willingness to work off it too.
The defining performance of Herrera’s reinvention, however, was during the infamous Red Monday at Anfield, billed as a cataclysmic clash between two footballing giants yet reduced to a scoreless draw in typical Mourinho style. Herrera finished the match with a frankly outrageous seven tackles and ten interceptions – 17 ball-winning actions – and once again the most touches and most passes of any United player. A new, significantly more Mourinho, string had been added to the midfielder’s bow, and by the end of the match he was even talking like his Portuguese manager, speaking of his pride in United’s spoiler performance (Sky Sports via Mirror Football).
“We just tried to win every duel, every battle, every ball. We knew it would be a good fight. We can be proud. We wanted to win but I think we showed we are a big team, we are going to fight for everything and I am proud of every teammate.”
Since then, Herrera has fully embraced his reinvented role of the tenacious ankle nipper in the Red Devils’ engine room, evident enough through him already being sent off twice this season, providing the energy and aggression to compensate for Michael Carrick’s ageing legs and Pogba’s positional ill-discipline. It’s a far cry from the role many assumed of the then-playmaking midfielder when he made an underwhelming United debut in 2014, but one Herrera has unquestionably excelled in.
He’s actually made the most interceptions of any Premier League midfielder this term, whilst he’s averaged just 0.01 tackle per match less than Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante – the reigning PFA Player of the Year and widely revered as the top enforcer in the world.
Yet, what actually separates Herrera from the award-winning Blues midfielder, and what actually makes him arguably the better and more influential player, is that he still possesses the more technical, aesthetic sides to his game. He scored and assisted in the 2-0 win over Chelsea earlier this month, achieving the latter in a pattern of play that saw him scrap for the ball in midfield (albeit, arguably assisted by his hand), turn and unleash a defence-splitting pass that left Marcus Rashford one-on-one with Asmir Begovic. Much like Kante, although through rather different methods, Herrera has that ability to turn defence into attack.
That will be crucial this Thursday when, rather poignantly, United travel to the Etihad Stadium to once again face Manchester City. Separated by just one point and one place in the Premier League table, both sides will enter the clash with exactly the same aim – to cement a place in the top four. But in terms of performances and roles, we already know how this one will pan out; City will look to keep the ball and move it quickly, United will batten down the hatches and wait for their chance on the counter-attack. Herrera will be expected to play a huge part in that.
Whilst his first performance against City this season gave a hint of Herrera’s potential as a ball-winner with technical quality, his last could confirm its realisation – not only breaking up Guardiola’s tiki-taka buildup play, but also launching attacks on the break. Herrera’s gone from being a passive component of United’s midfield to a leader and a match-winner; proving the difference in a game that could well decide this season’s top four race would provide the most convincing evidence of that yet.