Ander Herrera’s emergence unlocks big game formula for Manchester United

Ander Herrera was a key player for Jose Mourinho in his first year as manager at Manchester United. The Spaniard was voted the club’s Player of the Year last season for his outstanding performances which helped United capture both the League Cup and Europa League. With the addition of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea last summer, expectations were high that Herrera, Matic, and Paul Pogba would form a formidable and balanced midfield trio.

Things don’t always go according to plan though.

Herrera struggled for fitness much of the season and even when fit hasn’t quite reached last year’s heights. As a result, Mourinho has had to spend much of the season searching for midfield combinations which could establish defensive solidity, retain possession and provide a platform for the club’s flair players to thrive.

That search proved extremely difficult to navigate.

The Pogba and Matic pairing got off to a great start and had some spectacular moments, but often left the defense exposed. In United’s 3-1 victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, David De Gea was forced to make 15 saves as the duo were overrun in midfield.

The most chastening experience though was the hiding they were handed by Tottenham on their visit to Wembley in January. The 2-0 scoreline didn’t do justice to Spurs’ utter domination of proceedings. United were second best all over the pitch but were outclassed and outworked nowhere more noticeable than in midfield.

Moussa Dembele put in a stunning performance, gliding around and through United’s lines at will. Even when Pogba and Matic got on the ball they were swarmed with their only option often a pass backwards.

It was a dour performance which truly exposed the midfield partnership’s lack of mobility and defensive discipline against top quality sides. Luckily for Mourinho, Herrera’s return to form in time for the stretch run littered with “big matches” at the end of the season has come at precisely the right time.

His reintroduction into the side in these games has given United more balanced in the middle of the pitch. Mourinho will always take a more cautious approach in these situations. In the absence of his preferred midfield trio Mourinho has preferred to simply defend deep and look to nick a goal on the counter, but with Herrera providing more balance and solidity in midfield United have been more willing to commit numbers forward in attack.

In the Manchester derby two weeks ago it was Herrera’s lovely cushioned chest down in the box which Pogba dutifully tucked away which ignited United’s comeback from 2-0 down against Manchester City. Then, of course, in yesterday’s FA Cup Semi-Final against the same Tottenham side which so brushed aside United with ease a little less than 3 months ago,

Herrera scored the winner after running onto Sanchez’s deflected square ball across the edge of the box.

His impact goes beyond ghosting into the box to score or set others up though. He’s the ultimate “Mourinho player” for his defensive commitment and work. It’s those qualities which have provided the balance in midfield that Mourinho has been searching for all year in his absence.

His willingness and ability to get stuck in are a necessary component for any team, especially in the middle of the pitch where matches against top quality opposition are often decided.

Herrera’s discipline in providing extra cover alongside Matic has benefited Pogba most of all. The Frenchman has struggled at times this season to find the balance between sticking to his defensive and tactical duties and unleashing his talents in getting forward. With Herrera in the side Pogba has the freedom now to get forward and influence the game as he explained following his two-goal match-winning display against Manchester City:

“It’s hard to make this run in a two because you have to stay and you have to control. When we have three players, I know Matic will stay behind, and you have more freedom to go in front.”

Perhaps what supporters will enjoy most is neither his timely contributions going forward or his steeliness in defense, but rather the pleasure he derives in engaging in the “dark arts”. He’s a player you love when he’s on your side, but would absolutely loathe if he played for a rival.

Herrera has a penchant for committing niggling fouls, exaggerating contact while rolling around on the ground and generally getting under the skin of opponents.

He did as much in the Manchester derby. He got Gabriel Jesus so hot under the collar the Brazilian lost the plot and rather than looking for an equalizer was more hell-bent on putting one in on Herrera.

And he was at it again yesterday at Wembley doing whatever he possibly could to prevent Dele Alli from getting away on the counter.

These antics serve a greater purpose than to simply get under an opponent’s skin though. They disrupt the flow of the game and can break up or slow down opposition attacks. When protecting a lead this is invaluable.

If United are to push on next season to challenge for the Premier League or in Europe there is much work that needs to be done with the squad. A piece of that will certainly be to reinforce in central midfield. However, Herrera’s late season re-emergence has helped to solidify the foundations in place and provide a template for the type of balance they must strive for consistently in midfield to progress moving forward.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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