In the last few years, Manchester United has preferred to play wingers and forwards in center midfield over actual central midfielders. Going back to the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson’s era, the legendary Scot famously picked the likes of Rafael, John O’ Shea and Ji-Sung Park ahead of Paul Pogba in the center of the park. While United claimed that Pogba’s exit was a result of the-then-19-year old’s pleonexia, the French youngster has constantly maintained that it was a consequence of a lack of playing time. Fast-forward a couple of seasons, after a protracted transfer saga involving fake agents, United signed their first ‘true’ center midfielder since Owen Hargreaves – Ander Herrera. After years of having to watch Darron Gibson, Anderson and Tom Cleverley struggle in the center of the park, we finally had a midfielder who looked the part. Yet, these days, Marouane Fellaini, Adnan Januzaj, Juan Mata and Wayne Rooney – converted central midfielders – are preferred to the ex-Athletic man.
At first, Herrera was a mainstay of the United starting lineup – he played in all of the initial games under Louis van Gaal. However, a rib injury combined with tactical changes has meant the spaniard has been relegated to the bench since December (the start against Preston notwithstanding). In spite of United’s consistently subpar performances, van Gaal refuses to play Herrera. In a recent interview, the boss stated that he believes that the performances of other midfielders are keeping Herrera out of the team. It is certainly true that Rooney’s industry, Fellaini’s physicality and Angel Di Maria’s creativity are assets that have bailed United out of trouble. However, the confounding fact is that Herrera possesses all those attributes. Let’s look at some of the reasons that Ander Herrera should be a starter for Manchester United.
Goals – In the face of underperforming strikers, Herrera continues to provide goals and assists for this United team. Each one of his goals for United this season has been highlight worthy. None more so than his exceptional goal against Yeovil Town – a goal that won him United’s Goal of the Month. Other goals have included a delightful back heel against Leicester City.
Work rate – Herrera consistently harries opponents and isn’t afraid to go into a tackle. While he will never have the aerial prowess of Fellaini, his ability to close down creative midfielders would be an asset in the big games – when he comes up against the likes of Cesc Fabregas. Fellaini (somewhat unfairly) gives up too many fouls, and opposition midfielders are able to run past him easily. Herrera, on the other hand, has the foot speed to make recovery runs.
Quick passes – I believe this is Herrera’s greatest asset. Under van Gaal, United’s passing has been very slow and deliberate. In recent weeks, van Gaal himself has said that United need to improve the incisiveness and speed of their passing. Every time Herrera comes onto the pitch, the spaniard injects speed of thought and movement into the ponderous United side. Herrera rarely tries the Wayne Rooney-esque Hollywood pass. However, his passes are always placed into channels that allow the wider players to find space and stretch the pitch. Arguably, playing Herrera would drastically improve the effectiveness of Di Maria and Januzaj- United’s only players that are capable of delivering a cross that clears the first man. It is also important to note that Herrera’s passing is a marked improvement on both Rooney and Fellaini’s, and would therefore allow United to keep possession – a word that van Gaal hinges his mythical philosophy on.
Speaks English fluently – A big change at Manchester United has been the influx of many Spanish-speaking players (David de Gea, Marcos Rojo, Di Maria, Mata, Herrera). Herrera is one of the few who is able to speak both English and Spanish fluently and would be the perfect medium for conveying in-game tactical changes to the likes of Di Maria and Rojo. Also, by all accounts, Herrera is an affable individual who is universally liked by his fellow professionals. This makes his role in the locker room (and, by extension, the starting XI) more important.
Having established Herrera’s qualities, the next question is – how does he fit into the starting XI?
Except for the folks at Full Time Devils, the soccer world universally agrees that Radamel Falcao does not deserve a place in this team. There is no doubt that Falcao’s movement is impressive, and a case can be made that United’s players should be looking to play him in earlier. However, when the Colombian has received the ball, he has not known what to do with it. In direct contrast to his time at Atletico Madrid, Falcao’s hold up play has been horrific. Along with his poor goal return and awkwardness on the ball, this suggests that the need to drop him from the starting XI is beyond a serious consideration. By dropping Falcao, Rooney could be reverted to the No. 9 or No. 10 role. It is quite shocking that his goal against Yeovil Town was the Englishman’s first shot on goal in 2015. This is made even more bizarre when van Gaal himself stated that Rooney is his best striker at the club.
With the current personnel, the ideal way to fit Herrera in would be a 4-3-3. The distribution of Daley Blind, the physicality of Fellaini and the dynamism of Herrera would help United control the midfield and play the ball to Di Maria in the playmaker role. The width would be provided by the fullbacks. Ironically, this system isn’t too different from what van Gaal is currently playing. However, I genuinely think Herrera is the missing piece in the puzzle, for the aforementioned reasons. Admittedly, Mata and Januzaj are the odd-men out in this team, but they can be rotated into the more advanced positions as needed. Another point of discussion is the form of Robin van Persie. It is clear that playing both van Persie and Falcao in tandem does not work – neither one has the acceleration to create space for the other. To put it simply, the Dutchman offers more in his all-round play than Falcao does, and is therefore a better fit for this system.
A slightly more creative approach (see below) would be to drop van Persie and play Fellaini behind James Wilson in a modified 4-2-3-1. This would allow Fellaini to be the target man and be responsible for the holdup play, while the young English striker would be tasked with running behind the defense. Blind would continue to play the anchor role. Whereas Herrera would be responsible for driving the play from midfield and moving into the spaces created by the movement of Di Maria and the hold-up play of Fellaini. Personally, I find this system worth considering for games away from home, in particular. It would give United speed on the counterattack (via Di Maria, Rooney, Wilson and Herrera), the physicality for away trips (via Herrera, Blind, and Fellaini) and the possibility of switching for a 4-3-2-1 in defensive situations.
Van Gaal continues to speak about the need for “balance” in this United team, yet it seems that his most complete central midfielder remains underappreciated at the club. To drive home this point, this week, van Gaal argued that United needed to sign a creative midfielder in the summer. That comment may be a sign that the Spanish duo of Mata and Herrera are not appreciated at Old Trafford. And, while some believe Mata’s defensive vulnerability as a reason for his possible exit, Herrera is certainly not guilty of that crime.
In conclusion, through various interviews, van Gaal has bemoaned the need for a player who can inject pace into this team and someone who can provide balance and creativity. He suggests that strikers aren’t performing and that his best striker is being forced to play in midfield. It seems the resolution to all his problems is right in front of him, but perhaps someone needs to hand him a dossier so that he may finally see that Herrera fits that bill.