When foreign players move from abroad into the Premier League, the same painfully repetitive question is almost always asked – can they adjust to the speed and physicality of the English game? It’s an understandable query, seeing as the ability to adapt to new styles is more important than ever for a footballer now, but it’s also one which is being proved somewhat unnecessary with the likes of David Silva, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla showing that quality ultimately shines through.
The next in that line of Spanish midfielders who is starting to place yet further disparity between that question and the reality of things is Ander Herrera, signed by Man Utd for a little under £30 million from Athletic Bilbao in the summer. Some questions were raised over the fee (which was fully dictated by Bilbao’s release clause, Basque policy and lack of a need to sell) at the time, but it was a clear position of necessity for the club to reinforce in – and the early signs are that what he delivers could prove to be worth every penny.
The faster tempo of play in comparison to La Liga hasn’t fazed the former Bilbao man whatsoever, with him not only adapting but thriving to it. Rather than the generation which is just ending, Herrera’s style is instead somewhat more indicative of the new mould of Spanish midfielders coming through – there’s a different kind of dynamic to his game. He isn’t of the metronomic but lacking mobility sort, as is associated with the likes of Xavi, but instead has greater energy and vigour in combination with all the expected technical quality of a Spaniard.
This energy, combined with his capacity to operate in both the deeper and more advanced regions of the midfield, has helped to go some way towards solving what was probably the biggest problem they had last season. Where ball circulation was often painfully slow under David Moyes, two distinct halves of the team formed; the attack was too isolated and when possession eventually got to them the opposition had already recovered their shape before anything effective could be done.
That often resulted in Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney having to drop into absurdly deep midfield areas to try and improve the midfield situation in a game, and by then they were far too far away from the box to have the impact which they do best: scoring. The signing of Juan Mata went a slight way to helping those two, providing them with the proper quality of service which they deserve from the number 10 position, but issues further back in the middle of the park continued to see them struggle as a whole unit.
Herrera being added to the side means he is the one to act as the vital link between though, with his ability to buzz around, play quick one-twos and constantly interchange positions adding something very unique to the side. He has shown himself to be instrumental when it comes to adding a real tempo to the play, something which has again been missing at times without him under Louis van Gaal too.
The addition of Ángel Di María has certainly helped to ease the midfield problem too, with the Argentine offering a less subtle but more powerful outlet – a runner to break the lines and burst into space to create options or room for others. It is however, despite the Argentine’s undoubted quality, Herrera who has made the most difference in this regard. It’s no coincidence that Man Utd’s two best performances as a team with the ball (4-0 and 3-0 home wins vs. QPR and Hull respectively) have come in his two strongest games.
In his 7 Premier League games so far, Herrera has succeeded with 88.5% of his passes, attempting an average of 59.4 per match. This number of passes is lower than both Daley Blind and Michael Carrick, an indication of the deeper areas in which those two operate when playing, but significantly higher than the other three midfielders who play either in line with or ahead of Herrera. That helps to show that, except for whoever the holding midfielder is, he’s the one who has the most say of where the ball goes as play develops into the next phase.
The majority of these passes have come in the middle of the pitch, the area where he is most needed by Van Gaal, but he’s also demonstrated an ability to be more decisive when he is closer to goal. 1.4 key passes per game is a substantial increase in comparison to the other deeper midfielders in the Man Utd squad, and a tally of 3 assists is a positive (albeit somewhat misleading, as Juan Mata for instance only has 1 despite creating more chances) reflection of that. It’s the general circulation which he is most beneficial towards, but this knocks any suggestion that he simply passes backwards or sideways; he’s progressive.
He is also the midfielder with the greatest number of dribbles per game, except for Ángel Di María (who uses dribbling as his main outlet), which is a sign of his dynamism and the range which he has to his game – he’s comfortable at changing the pace of a match through either passing or carrying the ball himself. As well as his quality in possession, though, Herrera’s mobility and defensive contribution combines to form a very well-rounded player and useful asset.
His statistics without the ball shown in the table above are unanimously better than those of both Di María and Mata, but also more than stand on their own next to those of the other three. He has the third highest number of tackles per game (2.7), whilst also having the second highest figures for interceptions (1.6) and fouls (1.1) too. Forget any doubts you may have still had over whether he’s ‘the right build’ for the Premier League.
His assist for Robin van Persie against Hull recently is a good example of his willingness to do the less aesthetically pleasing aspects of the game, where (after initially giving the ball away himself) he won possession back high up the park before finding the Dutchman with a through-ball. This Man Utd side doesn’t have the personnel to implement a proper pressing game effectively as a unit, but Herrera is certainly the one most capable of harassing opposition defenders and midfielders – either forcing a long ball or winning possession higher up the pitch.
The 2-1 home win vs. Stoke saw him often occupying a role at the tip of the midfield diamond, as opposed to just Mata being there, and the two Spanish compatriots had a nice rotation going on, swapping positions constantly. Where Herrera is better at closing down without the ball, he provided the role of a more functional attacking midfielder (similar to Oscar at Chelsea) higher up the pitch and cut off build-up opportunities which Stoke might have otherwise been allowed.
By blocking passing lanes and putting the opposition ball-carrier under pressure, it leaves the other side with a choice to make: risk trying to play out from the back still or just stay safe and rely on an optimistic long ball to retain the ball. Whilst the best teams will be able to get around the press, seeing as it’s often only Herrera and one or two others so it isn’t the most effective, the majority of teams Man Utd come up against will opt for the latter option – and then possession will most likely turnover back to Van Gaal’s men.
That lack of sustained pressure on the Man Utd back-line offers a nice relief for them, which is especially beneficial for a relatively weak unit which has undergone a lot of personnel changes due to injuries. It also means, of course, that they will enjoy greater spells in possession themselves; and with Herrera, Di María and Mata they can (unlike last season) now make the most of their control.
The midfield area has been somewhat problematic for the Old Trafford outfit for some time now, but Herrera’s impressive performances in the majority of the matches he’s played suggest he could well be the man to help solve the issues. Sustaining a fractured rib in late September was certainly a set-back but, bar that and a poor 45 minutes (where he was still getting back to fitness) in the 2-2 draw at West Brom, he hasn’t set a foot wrong yet.
He gives something very different to any other player they have when he’s in the team: a sense of calm and control in possession as well as a dynamic presence without it. If Man Utd are going to return to the top four after missing out last season, as they appear to be on course for right now, then Herrera’s performances in the middle of the pitch will be looked upon as a hugely significant reason why.