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Ander Herrera: From bit-part player to potential Manchester United Captain

Manchester United’s recent surge in form has seen many plaudits for players such as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Zlatan Ibrahimović. Paul Pogba has also started to win over his doubters, after a less than spectacular start. In spite of this, there is one player who most United fans would always select in their first choice eleven. Spanish midfielder Ander Herrera, who recently won his first cap for his country, has been going about his business almost unnoticed.

His high work-rate, as well as his unselfish and team-orientated displays and box-to-box running, have led to many United fans touting him as a future club captain. With Wayne Rooney’s decline, and his future at Old Trafford, a constant source of speculation, it may be a decision José Mourinho has to make sooner than later.

Early Days

The groundwork for Herrera’s transfer to Old Trafford went back several years. The club were alerted to his talents when United played Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League in 2012. The Spanish side eliminated the Red Devils, with Herrera playing a key part. When David Moyes took charge following Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Herrera was one of the players on his list of transfer targets. United made a bid in the summer of 2013, which was rejected by the Basque club.

During his ten months in charge, Moyes made regular trips to Spain to watch the midfielder in action. As such, a deal was agreed in principle ahead of Moyes being sacked in April 2014. When Louis van Gaal took over later that year, he gave the green light for Ed Woodward to complete Herrera’s transfer.

Ander Herrera completed his move in June 2014, and joined United’s preseason tour of the USA. He made his Premier League debut on the opening day of the 2014-15 season. He played the first hour of the 2-1 defeat to Swansea City at Old Trafford, before being surprisingly substituted. In many ways this would be a premonition of how van Gaal would treat Herrera during his two years in charge.

Initial Struggles

The Spanish midfielder instantly became popular with the fans. During the last few years of Ferguson’s reign, the midfield was an area that seemed to be constantly neglected. Herrera’s non-stop running, as well as his desire to always look for an opportunity to play a forward pass endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful. It has to be said, however, this was probably at odds with what his manager was trying to achieve.

Van Gaal seemed more concerned with keeping the ball at all costs, rather than taking chances to win games. As a result, Herrera found himself in and out of the team, never able to hold down a regular spot. The constant tinkering with team selection frustrated the fans, and the dull style of football served up by van Gaal did not fare any better.

United’s best period under the Dutchman came during March and April of 2015. An injury to Luke Shaw saw midfielder Daley Blind switched to left back. The manager selected Herrera, Michael Carrick and Marouane Fellaini as his midfield three. The result saw United beat Liverpool, as well as Tottenham, Aston Villa and Manchester City at Old Trafford. That four game spell produced twelve goals, and some scintillating attacking football. A good example would Juan Mata’s first goal at Anfield, a fine finish after a superbly weighted through ball by Herrera.

In the two seasons under van Gaal, Herrera made 23 appearances as a substitute.  Despite not being a guaranteed starter, he scored thirteen goals in that time. Had he been playing every week, he probably would have had quite a few more.

Key Player

When José Mourinho took charge, it initially looked as though Herrera’s United career was going to follow the same pattern. The Portuguese initially seemed to favour Fellaini ahead of him, and Herrera started just one of United’s first five league games. When he came on at half time during the Manchester Derby, a game that City had dominated suddenly turned. Even though United were unable to turn the score around, the second half was much more even. The energy Herrera brought to the midfield was a big factor in this.

While Mourinho initially struggled to find his best formula, he now seems to have settled on Pogba, Herrera and Carrick as his preferred midfield. United have not lost in the five games he has played the trio together. Even the two games they have drawn, where Arsenal and Everton both scored late equalisers, United dominated the majority of both matches. Had he tried this from the start of the season, they might be further up the table.

Herrera has finally started to show why United scouted him for so long, and he won his first cap for Spain in November. If he keeps up the level of performances he has shown lately, it seems certain he’ll add plenty more to his collection.

Why Herrera as Captain?

There are many elements a manager has to consider when choosing a club captain. One of these is undoubtedly his availability. If a player has a chequered injury record, he cannot be relied upon to perform week in, week out. This was probably why Ferguson prompted for Nemanja Vidić to replace Gary Neville as captain, rather than Rio Ferdinand. Herrera hasn’t had a serious injury since he’s been at Old Trafford. It’s also worth pointing out that, despite the fact that he is not afraid to get stuck in, he’s not the type of player constantly being shown the red card.

The last two midfielders to be named as permanent club captain typified two very different styles. Both are United legends. Roy Keane led by fear, constantly screaming in his team mates’ ears. He was not a man they wanted to let down. On the other hand, Bryan Robson led by example, with his determination to carry his team forward against all odds making him an inspiration to others. Herrera probably falls into the category of the latter, in terms of how he goes about his business. That said, he is not afraid to direct his team mates on the pitch, as he has shown on several occasions.

Another consideration has to be their passion for the cause. Ander Herrera has shown that from the day he first pulled on the red shirt. He never stops running for the cause, and isn’t afraid to get in the faces of the opposition. Despite not being the biggest of players, he will fly into a tackle against anyone. Ross Barkley found this out last season, when Herrera’s tackle on him in the F.A. Cup semi-final put Anthony Martial through for the winning goal. Given the extra responsibility of the captains’ armband, that passion might even increase, if that is possible.

Finally, and possibly most importantly of all, they have to be respected. The quiet, unassuming Spaniard is already loved by the fans, and his team mates. It seems his new manager also appreciates his contribution, with Herrera now seemingly a first choice for the Portuguese. He is also a consummate professional, never bringing bad publicity to the club off the pitch. He trains hard and is clearly devoted to his profession. Even when van Gaal was using him sparingly, he just got on with it, never complained and did his best when called upon.

Quite simply, it seems he ticks every box required of a captain. Time will tell whether Mourinho agrees. But now that he’s playing every week, seemingly free of the restrictions placed upon him by van Gaal’s regime, he may be ready for a further step up.

Other Candidates

Looking around the United squad, there doesn’t seem to be a plethora of candidates. Michael Carrick is currently vice-captain, and takes the armband when Rooney finds himself on the bench. Because his game has never been based around pace, he seems to be getting better with age. Like Ryan Giggs before him, he has looked after himself. If he was still at United five years from now, few would be surprised. Unfortunately for Mourinho, being 35 years old means he won’t play every single game. This means that while he can stand in as United captain anytime, he isn’t the long term solution.

Phil Jones‘ recent resurgence has surprised many people. He is enjoying his best run of form and fitness for a few seasons. The problem is that in his five years at United, he has never managed thirty Premier League appearances in a single season. He only made ten last season, almost half of which were from the bench. His attitude is not in question, similar to Robson in the fearless way he will fly into any challenge. It’s almost as if he has no sense of danger, at least where his own health is concerned. If he can stay injury free then he would be a very likely candidate, and now is his chance to prove it.

Some would point to David de Gea as captain material. He is the one member of the United squad whose world class status is under no scrutiny. Quite simply, he is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. But history shows that goalkeepers are rarely considered as captain. This is because they aren’t out in the thick of the action. A defender or midfielder can more easily leave his position if he needs to give orders to a team mate. A goalkeeper does not have the same freedom to wander around the pitch. Mourinho’s captain at Real Madrid was Iker Casillas, however, so it shows he doesn’t subscribe to this way of thinking.

New arrivals Eric Bailly and Paul Pogba may turn out to be the leaders United have so desperately lacked in recent years. But it would be hard to judge their credentials at this stage of their United careers. If the rumours are true that this is Rooney’s last season at Old Trafford, Mourinho may need to make the decision before they are ready.

The Last Word

It may be that Rooney stays at United for a few more years, and that Mourinho doesn’t need to make the decision just yet. But given how he has not been afraid to drop him, it suggests the manager is planning for a future without him. If that happens, his replacement might already be in the current setup.

Ander Herrera is now in his third season at Old Trafford. He is a Spanish international, established within the squad and is popular with supporters. The way he goes about his game suggests he wouldn’t be worried about the added pressure the armband usually brings. If anything, he would probably relish it, as he has every other challenge he’s faced during his time in England.

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