Ander Herrera has endured a frustrating start to the season, but you would not know it listening to him talk.
Manchester United’s reigning player of the year has started just one Premier League game. But that, he says, is fine if the bench is where Jose Mourinho thinks he is most useful to the team.
It is something Mourinho values.”I need good players, good people, “he said after the 4-0 win over Crystal Palace at the weekend, another game, incidentally, that Herrera did not start.
“I need some people with maturity, with the concept of team. I know that the new generations are more individual because this is the way the entourage, the way society makes them, so to have people like Herrera, (Juan) Mata, (Nemanja) Matic, (Antonio) Valencia, is very important.”
At least Herrera is used to biding his time at Old Trafford. Always a favourite with the fans since his €36 million move from Athletic Bilbao in 2014, he was not always popular with his first United manager, Louis van Gaal. It did not help, perhaps, that Herrera was signed in the months in between David Moyes’ sacking and Van Gaal’s arrival.
There is a story from his first season at the club when he had instinctively darted into the box to score. Walking down the tunnel at half-time, he saw Van Gaal waiting. He prepared for the congratulations. Instead, he got a volley of criticism. His run, the Dutchman said, had left the team vulnerable to a counter-attack. It was irrelevant, apparently, that the ball had ended up in the net.
Herrera has felt more appreciated since Mourinho took over and when there was talk of a move to Barcelona in the summer to link up with his former Bilbao boss, Ernesto Valverde, it was quickly dismissed.
The midfielder repaid his manager’s faith with two of United’s most outstanding individual performances of last season — one in the 2-0 win over champions Chelsea at Old Trafford and another in the Europa League final against Ajax. Herrera was man-of-the-match in, according to Mourinho, United’s match of the season.
United’s match of the season so far will come after the international break when they travel to Anfield to play Liverpool. It is a chance to prove their title credentials. It is also an opportunity for Mourinho to turn to Herrera.
Nemanja Matic’s arrival from Chelsea in the summer has hit Herrera’s first-team prospects. But so too has Mourinho’s keenness to pick as many attacking players as he can. He has resisted the temptation to pick a three-man midfield in most games, instead going with two central midfielders and Henrikh Mkhitaryan pushed up behind Romelu Lukaku. But three of United’s next four Premier League games are against Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea. And if caution creeps into Mourinho’s team selection, it is likely to be Herrera who benefits.
Mourinho will remember how United only began to get a foothold in the first Manchester derby of last season when Herrera came on at half-time. He will remember, too, how the Spaniard suffocated Eden Hazard in that win over Chelsea like a smaller, more polite, Roy Keane, but with less frothing at the mouth and more Iberian gesticulating.
Typically of Herrera, he said after nullifying the Belgian that “also the team was very compact so that made it more easy for me”.
It is not out of the question that he could do the same job on Philippe Coutinho at Anfield on Oct.14 or against Hazard again at Stamford Bridge three weeks later. Herrera is, after all, United’s big-game player.