Ander Herrera has been the fall guy in the Manchester United midfield this season, but was Jose Mourinho right to sacrifice the club’s Player of the Season to accommodate Nemanja Matic?
After playing only five minutes of United’s first three Premier League games of the season, a trio of wins against West Ham, Swansea and Leicester that produced 10 goals and three clean sheets, Herrera made his first start of the season at Stoke City on Saturday.
A disappointing performance in a 2-2 draw will have done little to aid Herrera’s cause in convincing Jose Mourinho he should be a regular starter, but the Spaniard can still count himself unlucky to have started the campaign on the bench having been not only United’s best destroyer but also one of their most creative influences last term.
After being largely overlooked by Louis van Gaal during his two years in charge, Herrera embraced Mourinho’s arrival and set about becoming the player the manager needed most. Despite making his name at Athletic Bilbao, where his attacking talents were showcased more than his defensive attributes, Herrera listened to what Mourinho wanted.
“I know it is difficult to play in a big club like Manchester United as a No.10 because you know how many goals you have to score to play there,” Herrera said while reflecting upon last season.
“So I thought I had to add something to my game. I had to give more options to the manager. We both agreed. He told me that I was going to play sometimes a different role in the team. He told me sometimes I was going to play more defensive and in other games he was going to need me more forward. I told him I’d play wherever he wanted me to play and I would give my best.”
His best was good enough to earn Herrera the Sir Matt Busby Player of the Year award and even led to calls for the twice-capped Spaniard to be given the United captaincy having become what Mourinho’s mentor, Sir Bobby Robson, would have called one of the club’s ‘blue-chip players’.
Herrera made 27 starts last season – a total bettered only by David de Gea and Paul Pogba – during which he attempted most tackles (84), won most tackles (62) and made 21 more interceptions (81) than any of his team-mates.
Furthermore, proving Herrera had not lost his creative instincts, no team-mate made more assists in the Premier League, with only Anthony Martial matching his contribution of six – two more than Pogba.
United won an average of 1.89 points per game in the Premier League when Herrera started compared to 1.64 points per game when he didn’t, yet Mourinho still felt it necessary to go out and improve in his position over the summer.
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Mourinho turned to the man he trusts perhaps more than anyone else he has ever coached. “Matic, I cannot say that I had better guys than him in my career,” the manager said in an interview with The Times at the weekend.
He cited the occasion in October 2015 when, then in charge of Chelsea, he sent Matic on from the bench at half-time during a home defeat to Southampton before substituting the substitute just 28 minutes later.
Matic’s reaction, despite his understandable unhappiness, was not to throw a strop but accept responsibility for his misfortune. Side before self – Mourinho remembers players who embrace such a mentality.
But has Matic been an improvement on Herrera so far season?
Matic’s languid style contrasts heavily with Herrera’s all-action, Duracell Bunny approach and is highlighted by the fact he has so far won fewer tackles (2.5 per game) and made fewer interceptions (1.8) per game than Herrera (2.7 tackles per game; 2.6 interceptions per game) managed last season.
However, he has been winning a far greater proportion of his tackles (77%) than Herrera managed last season (56.3%) and has so far been dribbled past only 0.8 times per game in comparison to the 2.1 times on average Herrera was beaten in 2016-17.
Though Matic expends less energy, it is easy to see from the statistics why Mourinho likes him in the holding midfield role. The fact he has won 2.3 aerial duels per game in comparison to Herrera’s 0.9 last season will also undoubtedly have pleased his manager.
Matic’s early performances for United suggest Mourinho pulled off a masterstroke in persuading Chelsea to sell the Serbian, while perhaps more importantly, Plan Pogba appears to be working.
Mourinho spent all last season trying to formulate a plan to get the best out of his £89million man, and never quite succeeded.
Herrera was undoubtedly the record-signing’s best wingman of those available to Mourinho, but even alongside United’s most consistent performer, Pogba was unable to fully flourish. Indeed, he was outshone by the player meant to provide him with a platform upon which to perform.
Four games in to this season, however, and Pogba is already halfway to matching his goalscoring record from last term, and 40 per cent of the way towards equalling his assists tally.
With Mourinho changing the make-up and style of the United team this season, Herrera is no longer as prominent in the manager’s thinking.
But that is not to say that he doesn’t have a role. While Mourinho is happy to play with just one defensive minder when Pogba and the front four have their fun against weaker opposition, especially at home, Herrera’s inclusion was widely expected against Stoke, just as it is will be against any foe who might be expected to go toe-to-toe with the Red Devils.
The Spaniard spent much of his 76 minutes at the Bet365 Stadium on the right, tucking in alongside Matic when required, but with licence to join the attack and support Henrikh Mkhitaryan ahead of him.
Understandably after his lack of recent involvement, Herrera looked some way off his best, failing to win a single tackle, but he did win more interceptions than any of his team-mates have made on average per 90 minutes so far this season.
Herrera may no longer be as important to United as he was, but he remains vital to Mourinho. Sir Alex Ferguson used to wheel out Ji-sung Park for the biggest games against the most testing opposition, and perhaps Mourinho has a similar plan for Herrera.