Ander Herrera: The jackal disguised as a choirboy

There are few greater crimes in football than Louis van Gaal’s decision to sideline Ander Herrera for much of his two-year reign. It had little to with the Spaniard’s ability. The midfield terrier has plenty of talent. Instead, Herrera’s exclusion appeared to be a clash of ideologies. Van Gaal’s possession obsession versus Herrera’s aggression; the Dutchman’s patience against a streak of recklessness. No longer. Herrera is important again, a man fit for José Mourinho’s regime. One fully understood by his manager, and the supporters.

While Zlatan Ibrahimović and Paul Pogba are the poster boys of Mourinho’s United, Herrera is the player who personifies his manager most on the pitch. When the Portuguese coach first joined Chelsea in 2004, he was characterised as charmingly arrogant,  but a man who also commanded respect. The same kind of paradoxical traits that can be seen in United’s number 26.

While the Basque-born midfielder charms with a smile and offers small talk about the game for hours on end, his on-the-pitch antics polarise neutral supporters. Herrera’s penchant for a tackle, frequent protestations to the referee, and that face of innocence when pulled up for fouls, infuriates rivals. They are the same traits that endear the player to United supporters. Like Mourinho, Herrera has an infuriating quality: you either hate to love him, or love to hate him.

ESPN in their blog wrote :

It is easy to be fooled by Herrera when you first look at him. He is not particularly tall, and his fresh-faced demeanour suggests that of a polite and diligent postgraduate student, possibly studying economics. He looks like — well, like a nice boy. But he is assuredly not a nice boy. Nice boys do not conjure slide tackles with the viciousness of bear traps. Nice boys do not steal possession as if it were a wallet left too long on the adjacent dinner table. Herrera is an unlikely source of fury, a jackal disguised as a choirboy.

Mourinho’s success in raising Herrera’s game should not be underestimated. The hardest task in management is perhaps not getting the best out of star players, but raising the game of the less prominent among a manager’s the squad. While Antonio Valencia deserves plaudits for his improvement this season, it is Herrera who is now the most important cog in United’s machine.

Under Van Gaal, the Spaniard was used as a creative midfielder with plenty of license to get forward. Mourinho, in contrast, has harnessed Herrera’s industry, and perfected it. By deploying Herrera in a two-man central midfield alongside Pogba, or in a three with Carrick as regista, the Spaniard’s role has become that of the destroyer. His tireless running and willingness to harass the opposition gives Pogba the license to roam and Carrick the freedom to dictate.

Every successful team contains a player of this ilk. Leicester City’s fall after N’Golo Kanté’s departure in the summer, or Liverpool’s poor form since Jordan Henderson suffered an injury offer evidence of the point.

While strikers’ goals win games and goalkeepers’ saves rescue them, the Premier League is evolving into a battle for midfield control. The shift by both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspurs to a 3-4-3 system, highlights the the importance of controlling the central third of the pitch. It seems highly likely that Kanté will be named the PFA Player of the Year for his title-winning impact on Chelsea this season.

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Herrera’s importance was highlighted by his dismissal against the Blues at Stamford Bridge on Monday night. While any player loss will have a detrimental effect on the team’s performance, it was telling just how much United regressed without the Spaniard’s presence.

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The central duo of Pogba and Herrera had adequately matched Kanté and Nemanja Matić until the 34th minute when the United midfielder collected a somewhat dubious second yellow of the evening. Marouane Fellaini was brought on in place of Henrikh Mkhitaryan to add more steel to United’s midfield, but the game was already gone. The Belgian showed good strength, but Kanté’s dynamism could only have been matched by Herrera, and Chelsea dominated for the rest of the game, claiming 72.6 per cent possession by the end of the match.

Despite Herrera’s ability to break up play, the Spaniard also possesses quality on the ball, enabling a smooth transition from defence to attack. With Carrick unable to impose himself on matches as his legs age, Herrera has taken on the mantle of the deep-lying playmaker when he is partnered by Pogba. The former Athletic Bilbao player has the industry and game awareness to drop deep and restart attacks, while still being able to get further forward in support of United’s attack.

For now, though, what he is doing should be celebrated. He is arguably as cerebral a midfielder United have had in recent years, having played under Ernesto Valverde, Marcelo Bielsa and Louis van Gaal. He also takes to his play with the passion of a United fan — a quality which finds itself in the performances of his fellow Spaniard, Mata.

On the field Herrera is not the replacement for Roy Keane that United has missed since 2005, but his ability to command the centre of the pitch, bark orders at teammates, and incite fear with a crunching tackle or few offers a hint of the past. Herrera may still look like a charming school prefect, but his tenacity is a remnant of the Irishman’s heyday.

The player’s leadership also means that many supporters view the Spaniard as United’s next club captain. After all, Herrera has the mental strength, skill, charisma, and empathy to do it. He also has Mourinho’s approval. The player not only understands supporters’ passion, but embraces it. After each home draw he vents his genuine frustration eloquently and honestly. When the team wins, he does it with the fans. At a time when footballers are at a distance, the Spaniard thinks and plays like those on the terraces.

Indeed, if there is anything that Herrera can add to his game, then it is the odd extra goal here and there — he has shown that he can be a fine finisher when called upon, and with so much attacking talent he can benefit from the preoccupation of defenders by arriving late in the area. Yet this is all fine tuning of a machine in near-perfect working order. It has taken Herrera longer to get here than he might have hoped — far longer than he should have expected, perhaps — but he has finally become pivotal to United’s trophy challenges on all fronts, and looks to remain at the heart of their push for silverware for years to come.

 

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