Ander Herrera joined Manchester United in June 2014 to become the first new arrival of the Louis van Gaal era. Although it was a wrench to leave Athletic Club, the Bilbao-born midfielder described the move as a “dream come true”.
These are the first three lines that describe Ander Herrera’s profile at Manchester United’s official site.
On June 26, 2014, Ander Herrera left Athletic Bilbao for Manchester United at a reported price of £28.85 million. He became the first signing of the Louis van Gaal era. One which had the potential to solve the midfield woes of Manchester United since Paul Scholes left. And he didn’t prove his supporters wrong.
Ander Herrera’s transfer not only brought creativity and tenacity in midfield. His transfer was a proof of things that Louis van Gaal was a man who meant business in the transfer market. David Moyes’ last year’s diabolical transfer season was still fresh in Old Trafford faithful’s minds and Herrera’s transfer had already failed once in 2013. Hence, Herrera’s transfer to Manchester United not only signaled a change of an era, it also meant relief for the supporters.
Ander Herrera was not one of those big name signings that Louis van Gaal made. He was more of an underrated midfielder who was given the task to hold up possession according to Louis van Gaal’s footballing philosophy. The guy who’ll keep the midfield ticking, apart from giving incisive killer passes or making important interceptions and tackles.
He quickly adjusted to life in England, thanks to his Spanish connection with teammates David de Gea and Juan Mata. In fact, his healthy friendship and rapport with these two made him a fan favorite. He was being seen as a “good guy” by Manchester United supporters and his beaming comments about his transfer to this club – “has been a dream come true” – went down pretty well with the supporters. He quickly made the supporters his fan. For the United fans who were passionately against the Glazer takeover, Herrera’s stance on modern football and his desire to stand up for the supporters didn’t go unnoticed either. When talking about club owners, he claimed that football shouldn’t be about ‘people getting rich off people’s dreams’. It was also reported that he paid for his entire buyout clause himself and this news made him an instant hit amongst United fans.
However, despite all his efforts to win over United fans, he got a cold reception from his manager. After his woeful 45 minutes at West Brom earlier in the season, following his rather premature return from a broken ribs injury, Herrera couldn’t get into United’s team. Wayne Rooney was preferred to the Spaniard in midfield despite struggling to play out of position and obviously being far more useful up front.
Herrera’s reputation grew with every passing match which United played but Herrera didn’t. It was beginning to become quite clear that for all the possession football van Gaal played, the wins didn’t reflect the manner in which the matches were won. There was a regular 65%+ ball possession for United but stats like shots on goal, shots on target and the most important stat – no. of goals scored – were poor. United were dominant in midfield possession but they were genuinely missing a creative midfielder in the final third of the opponent’s half, having the vision and technical ability to look for and complete that killer pass that would open up the enemy’s defense. Not only that, most of the matches United played were tense affairs, with United having the majority of the ball but vulnerable on the counter. Ander Herrera was also seen as the player who would do the dirty work in midfield. The work of breaking up opponent’s play, winning the ball back with a tackle and then distributing it over the park. He was beginning to look like the master key to United’s midfield problem chest. And given van Gaal’s love for possession football, Herrera’s absence from the playing XI looked all the more surprising.
He was inducted in the starting XI while visiting Swansea away. He scored the opening goal but was unable to prevent Swansea from doing a double over United. In the subsequent matches, Herrera failed to get going and it looked as if any hopes rested on Herrera to solve the team’s midfield problems were more out of desperation than out of footballing vision.
Then came the big match. The FA Cup Quarter-Final, with Manchester United playing Arsenal at The Theatre of Dreams. After a decent first half performance, Herrera was substituted at the interval and United’s midfield fell apart. Since then, Herrera played in every single match for Manchester United and they won everything in what seemed to be a sticky run of matches. If the performance against Spurs was the best United had played in the post-Ferguson era, the match at Anfield was one of the most dominant football United had played there in the Premier League era. Aston Villa were duly dispatched as Herrera scored twice. But when champions City came and literally walked their way into United’s net to take the lead at Old Trafford within 10 minutes of the match, it looked as if all the good work done by United over the days was being undone. United came back and thumped their closest rivals by 4-2.
Louis van Gaal’s philosophy was coming good for United and Herrera, along with Carrick, were in the middle of everything, ticking things over and always controlling the tempo of the match. Herrera, in particular, looked like the exact guy United paid 30 million pounds for. He kept the ball well, he scored a few goals, and had the vision to spot a player on the attack – and the ability to find them with a pass too. He didn’t shy away from going into a tackle and famously sent Steven Gerrard off in his final Liverpool-Manchester United derby.
The first year at Old Trafford for Ander Herrera has been a mixed one. For the first half of the season, it looked like it was going downhill for him and the team; but in the latter half of the season, he rejuvenated himself as the midfield maestro everyone expected him to be and United’s mission of playing Champions League football was accomplished.
Some people have drawn comparisons between Herrera and Paul Scholes, but the Spaniard can admit that this is a bit too generous. “There will never be another Paul Scholes,” he said. “He was a one off.”
Herrera’s first season stats, however, testify to all the praise he’s been given for his and, in general, the team’s performance during the latter half of the season. He has been United’s third best player all season according to WhoScored.com and had a passing accuracy of 89.2% over 26 Premier League appearances. He’s been United’s 4th best offensive player all season with 6 goals from 7 shots on target during the entire season, along with 4 assists and 1 key pass per game. However, it’s his ability to attract fouls and give United possession at important places on the pitch and at important intervals of time during the match that makes him such a useful asset to his team. He’s also got a great defensive work-rate and his defensive work is second only to Antonio Valencia’s in this season for United.
No doubt Herrera has the ability to keep the ball well for United, but they could do with more magic passes like the one to play in Mata at Anfield, or maybe a couple more goals like those against Villa. Possession is important but means absolutely nothing without goals. United fans will be hoping Herrera can offer the team both of these qualities in the coming season. It’s been a good season for this Spanish midfielder. United fans are hoping that he continue his resurgence and improve upon the deadly partnership he has formed with Mata in the coming seasons. To measure anyone against Scholes’ standards would be unfair. However, Herrera has been the closest anyone has been to Scholes in that United midfield. Herrera has come a long way, from Real Zaragoza to Athletic Bilbao to Manchester United, and he has the potential to go a long way from here.
Manchester United and Ander Herrera must expect exciting times ahead. Things are looking sunny again at Old Trafford!