Paul Pogba’s absence will place extra emphasis on Ander Herrera in the Manchester derby. Fortunately for Jose Mourinho, the Spanish midfielder has a habit of rising to the big occasion. We examine his growing influence at Manchester United.
Manchester United do not have fond memories of their last Premier League meeting with City, but for Ander Herrera the 2-1 defeat marked a significant turning point. The Spaniard came off the bench and helped stabilise his side that day at Old Trafford, with Jose Mourinho praising his performance and lauding his “phenomenal attitude” after the game.
Herrera had only started one of United’s first five games of the season at that point, but he has been one of the first names on the team sheet ever since, adapting swiftly to a deep-lying midfield role and displaying the kind of commitment Mourinho craves. “I have to keep working, performing and giving what the manager wants me to give,” he said last week.That work ethic was more apparent than ever in United’s recent victory over Chelsea, when he marked Eden Hazard out of the game in a way no other player has managed all season. With Herrera diligently shadowing his every move, the brilliant Belgian did not complete a single dribble or even attempt a shot on goal
For Herrera, it required discipline and sacrifice. Indeed, there were several moments during the game when he played a forward pass to one of his team-mates, only to look over his shoulder and hurry back to Hazard.
But Herrera was decisive with the ball too, providing the inch-perfect pass for Marcus Rashford’s opener and scoring the second himself on a rare foray forward after the break. “He was the engine, the goal-scorer and the assister,” said Gary Neville in the Sky Sports commentary box. “He was the man of the match.”
It highlighted the extent of Herrera’s influence in Mourinho’s side. The stats show he has made more tackles and more interceptions than any other United player this season, but he also ranks top for assists. Indeed, while Paul Pogba’s injury absence is an undoubted blow for Thursday’s return game with City, Herrera has arguably been more important.
His impressive display against Chelsea was not the first time he has starred against one of the top teams this season. Back in October, when United travelled to Anfield to face a Liverpool side who had scored 26 goals in their first nine games of the campaign, Herrera was instrumental in securing a goalless draw.
Mourinho was criticised for his smothering tactics, but there was no questioning Herrera’s effectiveness. As well as making seven tackles – more than anyone else on the pitch – there were 10 interceptions – the most by any player in a single Premier League game all season. Jurgen Klopp’s side dominated possession, but finding a way past Herrera was a different question.
It was a similar story for Tottenham two months later. Herrera was relentlessly energetic alongside Michael Carrick in the 1-0 win, stealing possession repeatedly and covering more ground than any of his team-mates. Crucially, he also had the technical quality to set up Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s winner with an incisive pass between Victor Wanyama and Jan Vertonghen.
Even in United’s meeting with Arsenal at Old Trafford in November, a game which ended with a frustrating late equaliser from Olivier Giroud, it was Herrera who dominated the midfield, and it was he who set up the Juan Mata goal that seemed to be sending United to victory.
It’s little wonder Mourinho has placed his trust in him – and the admiration is mutual. “I am very thankful to him,” said Herrera last week. “This season has been the most regular one for me at the club and that is with Mourinho on the bench. From the first day, he gave me a lot of confidence and told me I was going to be an important player for him.”
Herrera can further endear himself to Mourinho at the Etihad Stadium. The manager was eager to play down Herrera’s comment that Thursday’s derby is United’s “game of the season”, but perhaps he needn’t have bothered. Because when the stakes are high, Herrera can usually be trusted to deliver.