It is difficult not to like Ander Herrera, both as a footballer and a human being. From the moment he arrived at Manchester United after his £28.85m move from Athletic Bilbao he immersed himself in the history of the club and the culture of the fans. Intelligent and amiable, it was clear that this was a footballer with his head screwed on, who understood the honour of playing for United. The squad had lost its most passionate and United-immersed imported Red in Patrice Evra and Herrera helped to fill the void. His bromances with Juan Mata and David De Gea warm the cockles.
On the pitch he appeared to be just what United needed. The midfield had long since fallen into disrepair and the team needed high-class industry to ally with Michael Carrick’s technical excellence. Whilst incoming manager Louis Van Gaal did not scout and pursue Herrera himself, he approved the signing and if he had any awareness of football outside of the sphere of the Dutch national team then he would have been familiar with the qualities the Basque could bring. By the time he joined United at 24 Herrera had built a reputation for Zaragoza, Bilbao and Spain’s junior sides as an industrious, adaptable and technically gifted midfielder. That he had not played for Spain was more a reflection of the absurd midfield riches at the disposal of the national team manager, but a move to Manchester would surely give him the profile and stage on which to make that leap to international squad regular.
However, whilst his early performances showed promise Van Gaal seemed never to take to Herrera. United fans yearned for a midfielder capable of dribbling and playing in vertical lines, always looking forward, capable of creating and scoring goals. Since Paul Scholes’ retirement they had watched the likes of Tom Cleverley pass sideways and play conservatively, offering no alternative to Carrick’s relatively static metronomic passing. Indeed, by the 21st September in that first season Herrera had already scored more league goals than Cleverley had in his entire United first team career.
Herrera’s second goal for his new club came in the now infamous 5-3 defeat at Leicester City. It was a result which would have a huge impact on the rest of the season and, indeed, the remainder of Van Gaal’s time at United. The Dutchman was clearly horrified by how open his team had been and suddenly two deep lying, disciplined defensive midfielders became a necessity. Herrera, with his directness and constant desire to play forwards did not fit the mould and found himself in and out of the side. Whilst some enjoyed privileged status, the Spaniard appeared to be routinely punished for a single below par performance. Indeed, he did not start a Premier League game at all between December 2nd and February 21st in that debut campaign. He returned to the team at Swansea and promptly scored, albeit in a 2-1 defeat.
The remainder of Van Gaal’s tenure at Old Trafford followed a familiar pattern for Herrera of inconsistency of selection, playing position and, not surprisingly, performance. When the Dutchman finally left the building Herrera could have been forgiven for throwing a party. He didn’t, of course (as far as we know!), because he’s far too nice for that. However, to have escaped from the oppressive, controlling and untrusting shadow of the outgoing manager must have raised hopes of a better future at the club. He must have feared the worst, however, when incoming coach Jose Mourinho preferred Marouane Fellaini for United’s early Premier League games. Herrera finally got his chance against Northampton in the League Cup, where played well and scored and was retained for the League game against Leicester City at Old Trafford. In the latter match he produced a tenacious, all-action performance which deeply impressed his manager and from there the Spaniard has not looked back.
Whilst Mourinho continued to search for his ideal midfield balance Herrera became the go-to midfield foil for Paul Pogba and, in the space of three months has gone from bit-part squad member to perhaps the most consistent industrious midfielders in the Premier League. It is no exaggeration to state that he has become one of his team’s most important players and we are now seeing the player that excelled in Bilbao, both in terms of tenacity and work rate and technical ability. United’s winning goal against Tottenham on Sunday wonderfully showcased his talents as he flew at the visitor’s players as they endeavoured to break on the halfway line, intercepted a Harry Kane layoff and played a precision pass through to Henrikh Mkhitaryan to race away and wallop home. Herrera has become the perfect partner for the less disciplined Pogba and less mobile Michael Carrick, offering intelligence, legs and vision. He is also a vocal leader, constantly directing his teammates and showing a commitment to the cause that no other player at the club surpasses.
His development this season was recently rewarded, at last, when Herrera received his first cap for Spain, as a substitute against England at Wembley. It was a proud moment for a deep football thinker, immersed in football culture and history. He as much as anyone is aware of the honour it is to wear both his club and national team shirt. And yet you could forgive him for reflecting on those two lost years under Louis Van Gaal, just as United fans do. He cannot get that period back and whilst his outward face always conveyed positively, inwardly there must have been moments of despair, perhaps even regret. Herrera would not have been content with being a wealthy man. Football, for him, is a serious business and he, as much as any other player, also feels a responsibility to the fans, to give back to them for their support and commitment to the club.
Now that Herrera is finally trusted by a manager and allowed to play his natural game we are finally seeing the player that United thought they had tried to buy in 2013 and finally acquired a year later. There is no squad member at the club for whom the fans could be happier and whilst both the supporters and the player will never forget those two lost years, the future for Herrera now looks far more positive. Football can both make or break a player in an incredibly short space of time and he more than anyone will currently appreciate the potential for a positive swing. Ander Herrera is now one of United’s most consistent and important players and one of the finest in his position in the Premier League. As Phil Jones can also testify, what a difference a bit of faith and a run of games can make.