#FreeAnder was a popular twitter hashtag that was doing the rounds on the social networking site last year. . In a situation that mimicked that of Shinji Kagawa, fans were left dumbstruck at the Spaniards constant exclusion from the squad, despite the obvious need for a player like him in the starting 11.
A new-boy to the league, Herrera had struggled with fitness during the initial stages of the campaign. Once fit however, the former Athletic Bilbao star delivered on nearly every front, linking up play from defence to attack with consummate ease. His ability to bring the best out of Valencia and Mata, made Manchester United’s right flank an awkwardly potent weapon, that proved effective in their late season run of form.
By the close of last season, many of the United faithful saw Herrera as a long term fixture in the side, displaying the same passion that midfielders once had under Sir Alex. The key difference, however, is that Louis van Gaal isn’t a Sir Alex, more importantly he is no David Moyes either. There were some who suggested that because Herrera was a Moyes’ target, and that he’d been bought prior to the Dutchman’s arrival, that he’d struggle to gain his favour. That theory seems to be gaining credibility, as Herrera remains exiled despite his glaring need in the team.
Herrera has more than earned his place
The comments made by Van Gaal about the Spaniard, seem to suggest that there is simply no place for him in the current setup. Van Gaal’s deployment of a defensive double pivot, with a secondary striker seemed a good option to shore up Manchester United’s shaky defence. However, by the close of the season, United had the fourth best defence in the league, and had scored their lowest number of goals in 8 seasons.
Despite the poor turn-out, Ander Herrera managed 6 goals and 4 assists in 19 starts, the best per game stats of any of Manchester United’s midfielders. During Manchester United’s late season run, which included victories against Tottenham, City and Liverpool, Herrera was instrumental in the club’s single pivot midfield, alongside Michael Carrick and Maroune Fellaini. His ability to create defence splitting passes, link midfield and attack from the right and the centre, were imperative to keeping United mobile. Added to these contributions was the fact that every shot that he aimed at the goal, ended up in the back of the net, a point that speaks volumes about his contributions to United’s attack.
It seems odd then, that players like Adnan Januzaj are getting starts in positions they are not familiar with, ahead of Herrera. Van Gaal has rightly bought newer talent and it seems justified to use them. People like Herrera though, should not have to prove themselves repeatedly, despite doing well in the near past, unlike newer talents who are thrown straight into the first team.
Herrera has done more than enough to justify his importance to the team. While Van Gaal may doubt his positional discipline, Herrera is a midfielder who embodies the verve and vigour that come with a Manchester United midfielder. A player of his calibre, should lot have to earn his way back into the team.
Louis van Gaal has adopted a different, more reserved approach to his game this season. At the beginning of last season, a kamikaze 3-5-2 threw caution to the wind, and United suffered dearly. This season, Van Gaal has focused on preventing goals from being shipped. So far, he’s done an excellent job. United haven’t yet conceded a goal in the premier league and no opposition player has scored against them. All the additions that have strengthened the defence, have however weakened the attack. While the statement is not absolute, United’s deep lying double pivot has nullified the threat that the midfield can have in the construction of their attack– a key ability of both Carrick and Schweinsteiger’s.
Neither of the two midfielders have any consistent experience, operating in a double pivot. Schweinsteiger won Germany the world cup as their single pivot while Carrick proved indispensable playing the same role last season.
The modified 4-2-3-1 that Van Gaal has chosen to apply sacrifices attacking threat for defensive stability– a tactic that will only be helpful during the initial stages.
To make a system like this work however, you need a ball playing and creative midfielder who can bring in balls from deep, while creating space with off-the-ball movement. Ander Herrera has played exactly that role for Manchester United, be it playing in central midfield, on the left or right of a single pivot.
In all of United’s three opening games, the system has been crying out for that crucial link, and so far, those cries have fell on Van Gaal’s deaf years. The difference between the abandoning of the 3-5-2, and a prospective re-integration of Herrera, is that the latter system is yet to fail. It is likely to produce boring draws and showcase defensive strength, and has been doing just that so far. The season is only 4 games old, and with champions league football close to achievement, Van Gaal is very likely to rotate his squad, if not his formation.
The awkward triumvirate that was Valencia-Herrera-Mata, produced some of Manchester United’s most scintillating play throughout the past season, down the right hand side. Playing as right-central midfielder, Herrera was afforded the space to create as well as the freedom to move. In the middle of midfield, Herrera consistently broke opposition counter attacks, while picking the ball off Michael Carrick when United were on the counter. His mobility, flexibility and flair, brought the best in United’s attack, as well as the midfield.
Van Gaal’s problem towards the end of the season wasn’t the defence, it was the attack. While Van Gaal has addressed the over dependance on Michael Carrick, by signing both Schneiderlin and Schweingsteiger, his propensity to interchange between a 31 year old (Schweinstegier) and a 33 year old (Carrick) does not bode well for United in the long term. Herrera however, is a long term solution for Manchester United. Still 26, Herrera is yet to reach the golden stretch of his career that players such as Iniesta, Xavi and other Spaniards who came before him have reached.
There is still little doubt in his abilities, and none whatsoever in his commitment.United will have to show how much they value him, and quickly too, lest he finds himself a home elsewhere.