The Basque lad took a while to settle in - but, says Michael Cox, he has been key to the former champions' recent revival...
When assessing Premier League imports, first impressions can be misleading. Players who make an instant impact can fade, and those who initially struggle can gradually grow into top-class performers. At Manchester United, there are two obvious examples this season. Angel Di Maria was superb during his first couple of months, but his performances have declined to the extent that United’s record signing isn’t even a guaranteed starter these days.
Conversely, Ander Herrera started life at Old Trafford quietly, but in recent weeks has been their star performer. In fairness, Herrera has been popular at Old Trafford from the outset. A good, honest professional and a hard-working, energetic player will always be given the benefit of the doubt, but Herrera’s quality has been noticeable from an early stage.
Herrera is a confusing player because he’s an all-rounder: physical but technical, difficult to categorise, not a specialist at anything in particular. He is, however, an outstanding midfielder when at full fitness.
Spurred to prominence
Subbed on: 9
Unused sub: 6
(All comps, to April 9, 2015)
While Herrera turned in some some quietly efficient performances during the first half of the campaign, it’s only in the past month that the Spaniard has started to become one of United’s true leaders. His first outstanding performance came in the 3-0 thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur, the most convincing home display under Louis van Gaal.
Here, Herrera’s all-round ability was clear to see. Manchester United’s primary strategy to prevent Spurs from working the ball towards dangerman Harry Kane was to push forward and press – and Herrera was a key part of this. He attempted 10 tackles, with a match-topping 7 of them successful.
When United won possession, too, he helped them retain the ball. In addition to being the game’s most prolific tackler, he was also its most regular passer, distributing the ball quickly and efficiently.
He helped United remain on the front foot. This was the new Herrera – not merely doing bits and pieces, but instead a powerful midfielder actually dominating the game.
In the subsequent match at Anfield, Herrera was instrumental in Manchester United’s midfield passing dominance. There was a period leading up to the opener in which United’s possession play was simply wonderful: slick, patient but purposeful when needed, perhaps their best single passage of play under Van Gaal. It ended with Herrera arrowing a fabulous pass to Juan Mata, who finished superbly.
The relationship between the two Spanish midfielders has been one of United’s major strengths in recent weeks. They appear to instinctively understand one another’s movements, matching the right runs and the right passes. It’s no surprise they’ve struck up a friendship off the pitch, either – and they seem to be enjoying extra practice behind the scenes in Herrera’s back garden.
"I think it’s because of the relationship we’ve had over the years and because we understand football and life in more or less the same way," Mata told MUTV earlier this week.
"I think we play well together because we understand each other and sometimes without speaking or looking we know where we're going to pass, or where we're going to move on the pitch.
"The first goal at Anfield is a good example of that – [Ander] controlled the ball, turned and knew where I was already running to and he put the ball there. Ander is a quality player and I’m very happy he’s here and playing and performing well." In total, they combined 29 times against Liverpool, including for the goal.
But while Herrera was something of a facilitator in that game, he took command in the next fixture, a 3-1 home victory over Aston Villa. His passing was again extremely reliable, but this time he stormed forward into the box, as he did regularly at Athletic Bilbao, and scored two goals with his only two attempts. He’s now hit five league goals, from only 12 starts and seven appearances from the bench.
That he has only had 12 starts is perhaps the most surprising statistic from Herrera’s campaign, but it illustrates the extent to which he’s been an outsider at times, even occasionally with captain Wayne Rooney chosen in his midfield slot. For Manchester United’s run-in, though, Herrera will be undroppable and should start next season as one of Van Gaal’s key men in the middle of the park.
Having helped reinvigorate one of the world’s biggest teams, he can now repeat the trick at international level. With Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso retired from international football, and Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta recently struggling for form, Herrera must be on the verge of his first international call-up – and judging by the way they combine at United, that should prompt a recall for Mata, too.