What has happened to Ander Herrera this season? He’s jolted the tracks which were running to Sub-Standard Number 10 Town, and re-stoked his engine full of tenacity heading for Roy Keane City. One suspects the whisperings in his ear from the now wizened old conjurer of tricks Jose Mourinho has something to do with it.
The Basque was bought for Louis van Gaal, not at the behest of, and he never seemed to fit into the Dutchman’s plans, and with the signing of Pogba and Henrikh Mhkitaryan adding in another two to a midfield roster which stretched to 12 internationals, could hardly have been confident of getting much game time this season. Despite this he has always been popular with the fans, probably because he was one of the few who would dare pass forward under Louis van Gaal, and his slight little-man syndrome of getting stuck in - always something prized highly by the paying public.
The astute vision of Mourinho was to see there was enough discipline and bite in Herrera be taught to perform the deeper role and in do so adopted Ferguson’s penchant for shape shifting his players to his whim. Sir Alex turned Antonio Valencia to a right back, Phil Neville to a midfielder and Darren Fletcher from a winger to a holding midfielder, both in their mid-twenties, (less successfully with Phil Jones in midfield it must be said) but it's not just the positional flexibility that it affords the Mourinho, it’s also tactically.
His United arc reached its highest peak a couple of weeks ago vs Chelsea. The man-to-man effort Herrera delivered against Eden Hazard was amongst one of the best “jobs” you’re likely to see. Not only did he totally silence the best attacking player in the league, he set up the opener and scored the sealer. It’s like calling the plasterer and he paints you a renaissance fresco whilst he’s at it. Manchester City on Thursday should pose similar challenges for the Spaniard, but in place of Hazard you could see a David Silva or Kevin De Bruyne being belligerently bothered for 90 minutes. That, or Jose Mourinho might pull a different bespoke build out of the hat, either way you sense Herrera will be up to the task.
He must be a dream for his manager, someone who rates effort, discipline and ability as equals and expects high levels of all in his players. The key to his success in this team is that Herrera can go as the holding of 3 central midfielders, a partner to just 2 or be a more advanced option if partnered with a Fellaini and Carrick for example. Then in advanced positions you don't only see him win the ball back, but his attacking lineage switches in and he plays passes such as the one to Marcus Rashford vs Chelsea, or the weight-perfect defence splitter to Martial vs Burnley.
But perhaps most importantly for United's future success is the freedom and balance he affords Pogba. The Frenchman might scrape 7/10 rating for his first season, especially if top 4 and Europa League are secured. Recent matches have proved shoots of promise are there and with Herrera he has a partner who not only helps mop up defensively, but can carry a threat in incisive passing ability and so pulls attention away from the limelight loving Pogba. Something for once he’s beginning to enjoy. At first it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic from whom Pogba was to learn – an example of how to manage your ego for good. Recently, however it seems to have been Herrera - in his determination, discipline and effort levels.
There’s a feeling that in such a stats driven world of player assessment, the fact that United have been so profligate in front of goal this season has hurt Pogba on clocking up the tangibles, but his recent work has seen less of the arm flapping when the game goes against him, and more chasing back, jostling, and some expert defense splitting passes. His battling and pass to Anthony Martial leading to the Rooney goal, and his exquisite inviting stroke to Rashford, in the lead up to the Anderlecht goal. All sounds quite like a certain Basque man.
The truth is Pogba has the potential to sail straight past Herrera, in terms of ability, but why not have a Roy Keane next to your Paul Scholes? Sounds like a good idea to me.