Man United midfielder Ander Herrera too adventurous and creative for cautious Louis van Gaal
Have Manchester United become boring under Louis van Gaal and why is Ander Herrera turning into the forgotten man of Old Trafford?
There are three questions constantly being posed by United supporters right now – what will happen with David de Gea, being the other – and the team’s style of play and Van Gaal’s reluctance to place his faith in Spanish midfielder Herrera appear to be intertwined in what is becoming a growing sense of frustration in the stands.
At £28.8 million, Herrera stands as the fourth most expensive player in United’s history, but Van Gaal has made it clear enough by now that transfer fees are the last thing he considers when naming his team at Old Trafford.
The Dutchman’s aversion to Herrera is football-related rather than based on his fee, not that he is prepared to disclose his reasons publicly, but with the 25-year-old having completed 90 minutes just once since the 5-3 defeat at Leicester City in September, his qualities are clearly not what Van Gaal requires at this stage of his rebuilding job at Old Trafford.
Although David Moyes almost secured Herrera’s services from Athletic Bilbao in August 2013, before the player’s complex contractual situation at the Spanish club saw the deal fall through, United had been working on signing the player ever since his impressive contribution during the 2011-12 Europa League victory over Sir Alex Ferguson’s team.
With Moyes sacked last April while negotiations to sign Herrera were at an advanced stage, Van Gaal was happy to sanction the completion of the deal for the player when he was shown a list of the club’s summer targets by executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward after accepting the United job prior to managing Holland at the World Cup.
Toni Kroos and Cesc Fàbregas, also on Moyes’s list, were discounted by Van Gaal, but Herrera was given the thumbs up.
But after making a bright start at United during the pre-season tour of the United States, Herrera now finds himself wondering when a chance to return to the starting XI will come his way.
Ankle and rib injuries have checked his progress this season, but having been fully fit for the past two months, just two starts against Stoke City and Yeovil have been the sum total of his involvement in Van Gaal’s starting line-up.
But with Van Gaal’s tactics becoming increasingly risk-averse during that period, Herrera’s disappearance from view hints at the manager believing the player to be too adventurous and creative to fit into his ‘philosophy.’
Within two minutes of replacing Ángel di María as a substitute in Tuesday’s FA Cup replay victory against Cambridge, Herrera’s industry and vision led to him creating United’s third goal of the night for James Wilson.
Herrera simply won the ball in midfield, looked up and played it forward to Wilson, who scored from twenty yards.
During his fifteen appearances in all competitions, Herrera has created 20 chances, with four being converted into goals, so his contribution in an attacking sense is clear.
Defensively, during the 786 minutes he has played, Herrera has made 27 tackles, eight clearances, three blocks and committed 10 fouls.
In all, he has displayed an ability to combine both defensive and offensive aspects of the game, but it is his attacking attributes that appear to be the area of concern for Van Gaal.
During the tour of the United States, Van Gaal delivered the following assessment of flair players and what he expects from them.
“The most important thing is they have to know why we do things and when they do, the football player is not playing intuitively,” Van Gaal said. “A lot of players are playing intuitively and I want them to think and know why they do something.”
So in a nutshell, Van Gaal is not an advocate of free-thinking, off-the-cuff football.
It is an observation which explains Herrera’s lack of action, and also Adnan Januzaj’s battle to convince the manager of his value to the team, but it is an approach that has made United increasingly devoid of the cut-and-thrust which typified the club’s most successful teams.
Rarely this season have United displayed an ability, or desire, to pin opponents back into their defensive third, with the likes of Herrera and Januzaj delivering defence-splitting passes for the forwards to shoot goalwards.
Herrera is understood to be determined to convince Van Gaal of his worth and reclaim his starting position.
With the manager still experimenting with personnel and formations, it is impossible to predict whether Herrera will be a winner or loser in Van Gaal’s tactical deliberations.
But as a player whose instinct is to go forwards rather than sideways, Herrera may have to wait until Van Gaal releases the shackles from his team before he can return to favour.
Ander Herrera's key numbers
Minutes played: 786
Shots to goal conversion rate: 30%
Chances created (including assists): 20
Passing accuracy: 86.98%