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Ander Herrera: From Player of the Year to squad player; what does this season hold for the Spaniard?

At the end of the 2016/17 season, Ander Herrera was picking up the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award after impressing on numerous occasions that season and playing a pivotal role in united winning the UEFA Europa League and the EFL Cup respectively. The way he and the other Spanish boys seem to understand what it means to play for Manchester United, something that is shown in their performances and social media activity has seen Herrera become a big fan favourite at Old Trafford.

Herrera joined United the same summer that Louis van Gaal took charge at the club. His early performances in a United shirt were not so encouraging. As like a lot of foreign players coming to the Premier League, he seemed to take a long time to settle in to the English game and adjust to the pace and physicality of it all. My thoughts on the Spanish midfielder at the time were; ‘I wasn’t really sure what type of midfielder he was. I didn’t see him as a goalscoring midfielder, but at the same time, he wasn’t a player that was controlling the tempo of games for us from the middle of the park like we had seen him do at Athletic Bilbao’.

By the time the Spaniard picked up the Player of the Year award at the conclusion of the 2016/17 season, it had become clear to all to all the fans, players and the now manager Jose Mourinho that he had changed his game and what he could offer the team. He became an honest, hardworking midfielder, who had an eye for a pass and regularly turned in Man of the Match performances with an infectious combative style and never say die attitude. In an interview with the Telegraph, Herrera said:

“I think all of you have seen that this season my role changes. The manager has helped me a lot to get the knowledge about that role.”

He could not fit any more into Manchester United as a player, right? Exactly! That is why his popularity grew, something United’s number 21 said he was grateful for. Speaking at Manchester United’s end of season awards ceremony in 2017, he said:

I feel the fans’ affection and I’m very thankful but I think a Manchester United player can never stop. We have to keep giving them the affection back because you can see we don’t always perform at our best yet they are always behind us.”

Things changed last summer when United signed Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic from Chelsea. Matic, a player more in the Mourinho mould of a defensive midfielder was brought in to play where we have become accustomed to seeing Herrera play. Since the Serbian has joined the club he has been ever-present. With Paul Pogba taking up his midfield birth on the left in the team for most of the season alongside Matic, it has usually been a battle between Herrera, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard to claim the third midfield spot. Lingard’s impressive form this season and because Mourinho seems to believe he gives the centre of the park more balance, more often than not the young Englishman has been given the nod.

Herrera now faces one of the most testing times in his United career. You could say that this difficult period was always going to come for the Spaniard. Mourinho has made no secret of the fact that he prefers specialists for each position rather than multi functional players, something Herrera is seen to be. If he is not able to supply the 10 to 15 goals and assists, like Jesse Lingard has shown he can, or if he is unable to match Matic for the defensive workload needed at the base of a ‘Mourinho midfield’, he will no doubt continue to see his first team opportunities limited.

One thing Herrera is willing to do is adapt in order to ensure he plays more regularly for the club he loves. On this he told ESPN:

I am always open to learning. I am always open to adapting myself to a new role and a new position.”

Unless the Spaniard can bring something different to a midfield that has been strengthened further this summer with the addition of Fred, it is only going to become more difficult for him to find a place in United’s starting XI on a regular basis. One thing United fans can be sure of though is that Herrera will continue to show the right attitude to fight for his place in the team.

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