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Insights: Ander Herrera’s growing defensive abilities make him a daunting prospect

Manchester United may have just signed Paul Pogba, but it seems like the fan-favourite midfielder still seems to be the Spanish maestro who joined just two years ago. A United fan since childhood, Ander Herrera said that Old Trafford is the only place that could possibly draw him out of the Basque region, where the footballing culture promotes homegrown players who know nowhere else.

Two years later, and in my mind, there isn’t a shade of doubt. Ander Herrera has shown United fans that he can be one of the best players, let alone midfielders in the Premier League. Louis van Gaal never fancied the Spaniard, strangely enough- he represented everything missing in the Dutchman’s side as United missed out on top four football. One of the reasons for which many believe van Gaal was reluctant about Herrera was his defending- it was never bad, but van Gaal’s negative approach to midfielders did nothing more than negate Herrera’s play, and it would be pointless to play him in defensive midfield as he was instead of his pairing of Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin- one that only lost one game all season.

But the problem with Schneiderlin and Carrick was a struggle moving forward- Carrick was never intended to be an attacker, and Schneiderlin, preferred by Bastian Schweinsteiger when fit, was completely hindered by van Gaal’s tactics, from an attacking perspective. There were times against Northampton where Schneiderlin picked up the ball and just drove forward, particularly in the build-up to Herrera’s goal- but more on that later.

Jose Mourinho has come into United and given Herrera a sense of defensive responsibility. Herrera now sits in and protects his back line with incredible intelligence and discipline. Then, he picks up the ball and passes the ball as far forward as he can. Sometimes, when he has limited options, he just lumps it in the general area and causes confusion- Juan Mata subsequently scored from one against Bournemouth, as did Marcus Rashford against Northampton. But the key that makes Herrera have such devastating potential in the upcoming season is that this isn’t the only role he has played this season.

Against Northampton, when he scored a goal, he played as United’s most advanced midfielder, in whatever that formation was- but the important information to note is that he scored a goal and played incredibly well throughout. Combine those two roles, and all of a sudden, you have a formidable, world-class midfielder. Imagine Herrera alongside Pogba and in front of Schneiderlin- his strengths are now in defending, and when United breaks, there’s a pivot of axis and tenacity, along with aggressive pressing. Throw Morgan Schneiderlin in and it only becomes more aggressive.

Schneiderlin, though, was, as aforementioned, limited in van Gaal’s system. As Schneiderlin breaks, Herrera can be the man to cleverly (no pun intended) drop inside and cover- Schneiderlin, just as tenacious and driven as Herrera, offers physical, moving force to Herrera’s technical class. Dropping in to control the game, Herrera then gets the best out of Schneiderlin and Pogba and shows the world class defensive, possession and attacking attributes to be one of the best players in the Premier League.

With Pogba treated as a sort of gem in midfield, I think Herrera should look to reach a similar level- he’s 27, but his best days are coming, and he’s still learning a lot. For me, though, one thing remains- he must be on the team. He’s an absolutely gifted midfielder, has the passion and wants to be a champion- he’s one of the most undervalued midfielders around and it seems Jose Mourinho will be able to finally find his place.

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