In Ander Herrera, Manchester United have signed the perfect player to remedy some long-standing problems in midfield.
Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas were heavily linked with a move, but the signing of Herrera from Athletic Bilbao should not be viewed as a downgrade. In fact, he is more suited to United and Louis van Gaal’s style of play than that duo.
Herrera really could be a hit at Old Trafford.
Sir Alex Ferguson explained in his book My Autobiography how he often targeted 24-year-old players, believing that they would peak around the age of 26. Herrera very much fits the bill in that sense—he is good right now at 24 and could be great in a few years’ time.
What makes him such an attractive prospect in United’s midfield is that he’s an all-rounder, capable of playing creative, passing football, as well as contributing defensively with tackles and interceptions.
Herrera brings versatility and dynamism to a United midfield that has been short on both in recent seasons.
Michael Carrick is a neat and tidy passer, Marouane Fellaini uses his physicality to great effect and Tom Cleverley, in form, keeps things ticking over in midfield. Herrera will be a significant upgrade from those three players.
But one player who should benefit from his arrival is Carrick. Outstanding in 2012/13, second only to Robin van Persie in terms of importance and consistency, Carrick struggled under David Moyes.
At times, he was completely ineffective in an attacking sense. Gone were the probing and incisive 30-yard balls that made him so brilliant just 12 months prior. Instead, Carrick played much shorter, predictable passes.
That’s where Herrera comes in.
Carrick will be lifted by having the Spaniard alongside him. Both are competent passers and will control possession much more effectively than United did with Fellaini or Cleverley in the side.
Expect Herrera’s running and ability to carry the ball forward to alleviate much of the pressure that Carrick faced last season.
Herrera is a naturally creative player with the ball at his feet—and that’s something United should look to exploit. He can charge forward with the ball, skipping past defenders whilst meticulously assessing his options in front of him. It’s no surprise that he attempted as many through balls as he did last season.
That energy between defence and attack is precisely why Herrera was signed. He was bought to bridge the gap between the lines, which was such a problem last season. Far too often, United looked mechanical and lethargic in making the transition from defence to attack.
Herrera’s arrival very much changes that.
And despite not being a prolific goalscorer, the Spaniard is still a danger in the final third. Note in the following video, at the 12-second mark, how he ghosts into the box, unmarked, steering a powerful header past the goalkeeper.
Arriving late into the box, or lurking on the edge of it, is very much part of Herrera’s game. Even if he doesn’t take a shot, he still has the presence of mind and technical ability to keep the move alive.
Last season, United seemed unable to maintain pressure, making sporadic, one-off attacks that usually amounted to nothing. Herrera will ensure that United have a tighter control on the game in moments like that.
But don’t be fooled. He’s not just another attack-minded player in the ilk of Juan Mata or Shinji Kagawa—Herrera has tenacity in his game.
He has a relentless desire to win the ball back, working tirelessly to make tackles and using his reading of the game to break up attacks through interceptions.
Watch the following clip of Herrera’s 2013/14 season review to get a sense of his all-round ability. It’s very clear that he can do a little bit of everything in midfield.
And despite being more than capable of playing in attacking midfield, a position where he started 26 of his 33 games last season, Herrera will undoubtedly play in a slightly deeper role at United.
After all, that’s where United’s problems really lie.
That would allow Mata to play in his favoured position—something which United should prioritise. With those two in midfield, anchored by Carrick or another new signing, such as William Carvalho, Bastian Schweinsteiger or Kevin Strootman, United would be very strong in the middle of the pitch.
Regardless, the signing of Herrera is a very good start to a process that should have occurred years ago.
In a strange way, however, that should suit Herrera. After a miserable 2013/14 campaign, typified by weak performances in midfield for United, Herrera will immediately sparkle. That could help him to settle and hit the ground running.
And if he does make an impact early on, he could go on to achieve great things at Old Trafford. Right now, he’s the perfect player for United.
All statistics via WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated.