Manchester United and Arsenal were known for not playing football matches but going to war on the pitch. At least that was the case until the rivalry muted towards the end of Sir Alex Ferguson’s reign. Arsene Wenger’s diminishing powers and Arsenal not being a credible threat meant the Scot was often very happy to praise his counterpart in the Gunners dugout. Take out any old footage from the late 1990s or early 2000s, you will realise the bitterness that existed between the two teams. You don’t need statistics or any tactical analysis to understand the simmering rivalry.
However, on Wednesday night, Old Trafford saw one of those old battles between the two teams. Arsenal marched into enemy territory as favourites but Manchester United raised their game. Jose Mourinho was acutely aware that he couldn’t afford another defeat at home. He needed a warrior on the pitch to lift the spirits of his side and in Ander Herrera, he got one.
The Spaniard was snapping at Arsenal’s heels all over the pitch. His street-smart awareness led to Manchester United’s first goal. Against an Arsenal midfield who have garnered praise in recent weeks, Herrera stood up like a warrior. I’ll be delving into the statistics of the game and analyse one of the best midfield performances by a Manchester United player in some time.
A Solid Start That Set the Tone for the Game
Manchester United have made sluggish starts to games this season and have been duly punished. Their performance against Arsenal on Wednesday night was different. They bossed the game in the first 20 minutes and at the heart of it was Nemanja Matic and Herrera’s midfield duo. The Serbian, who has looked out of touch all season, kept it simple and his Spanish partner snapped around the heels of the Arsenal midfielders. Lucas Torreira, a world-class hustler, was hassled and harried by the Basque midfielder.
Arsenal grew into the game and it led to their first goal in the 26th minute. David de Gea’s mistake resulted in the goal but Arsenal were the dominant team at that moment. Manchester United managed to snap back soon and Herrera was in the middle of it all. His awareness to take advantage of Bernd Leno’s weak effort to save a Marcos Rojo free-kick led to Anthony Martial’s equaliser.
Snapping at the Heels and Street-Smart Intelligence
Herrera often brings a certain bite to Manchester United’s midfield. Some of his recent performances have not been great but he was on his game against Arsenal. He made five tackles and six interceptions in a complete midfield performance. A passing percentage of 92%, with three key passes and an assist, also showed his quality in the final third.
However, the Spaniard is also a street-smart midfielder and could often be a source of frustration for the opposition. His penchant for rolling around on the pitch and getting the referee’s attention for minor infractions from the opposition makes him a subject of derision for many rival fans. The modern football term, S**thousery, is appropriate to describe Herrera’s darker traits.
Mourinho made a statement by dropping Paul Pogba and playing Herrera in the middle of the park. Manchester United were not in a position to indulge the Frenchman’s indecisive midfield play against Arsenal. While Herrera is a less talented player than Pogba, the Spaniard plays with more conviction. It was evident that he acts as a leader on the pitch. You would rarely see him throwing up his arms in frustration. He gets on with the game and his willingness to provide himself as a passing option to his team-mates anywhere on the pitch is an underrated aspect of his game.
Manchester United lost momentum in the last 15 minutes of the game. Herrera was mint but he is not the quickest. Mourinho’s decision to take out pace from the game in the form of Jesse Lingard and adding Marouane Fellaini was baffling. A midfield three of Matic, Herrera and Fellaini was always going to drop deeper. However, the Spaniard continued his defensive duties and managed to keep the Gunners at bay.
How to Play Ander Herrera More Often
Herrera’s career at Manchester United has often followed a pattern. He has often found himself out of the team at the start of the season and struggling for minutes. The manager suddenly realises that he has a terrier-like midfielder in the squad such as the Spaniard and his influence grows as the season rolls on. The Basque has never complained and has continued to put in the hard yards when necessary. But he needs to play more as Mourinho’s team needs a character like him on the pitch as often as possible. He has made just four starts in the Premier League this season and that’s not enough.
However, the Manchester United manager must also find a way to slot Pogba into the 11. The Frenchman is way too talented and way more of a game changer to sit on the bench. The logical choice is to drop Matic in favour of Herrera. Yes, I know asking Jose Mourinho to drop the Serbian is like asking Vladimir Putin to stop strong-arming Russia’s neighbours. Matic is tall, a loyal Mourinho ally and can play football. But he has been on the downward curve this season and has often been poor.
The Serb has also failed to provide leadership on the pitch, something Herrera provides in abundance. Pogba could do with the Spaniard alongside him. There’s an argument that the Frenchman just needs someone in his ear throughout the game. He has that in the France team in Blaise Matuidi and Andrea Pirlo mentored the young Pogba brilliantly at Juventus. While Herrera is not as talented as the silky Italian, the Spaniard’s leadership could help the Frenchman. He needs someone to guide him during a game. ‘Keep it simple for five minutes’, ‘No flicks and tricks for the next few minutes’ – messages that could be the making of Pogba at Old Trafford.
Manchester United also need Fred to come into the season in a big way. Mourinho’s treatment of the Brazilian has been bizarre. We have seen very little of him on the pitch this season but it’s safe to say he has ability on the ball. Pogba, Fred and Herrera have the ability to develop a talented midfield three for Manchester United.
But will Mourinho drop Matic?
Herrera was a spark for Manchester United on Wednesday night. But he has also been plagued, like most of the team, by inconsistency this season. There’s always a chance we would see a more sedate performance against Fulham at the weekend. Mourinho needs the likes of Herrera to be at their game more often than not. The Spaniard’s willingness to do the job he needs to perform is a huge asset. But he also needs to bring out more of his midfield qualities, which were on show against Arsenal.
Wednesday night’s performance was a vast improvement for Manchester United compared to the recent inept showings. It also showed how far they dipped that a 2-2 draw against Arsenal at home was a positive result.
Herrera was in the thick of it but now can we see more of him?
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