In late June, Manchester United announced the signing of Ander Herrera. The Basque midfielder joined from Athletic Club in Bilbao for a fee in the region of £30 million pounds. While not being the established world class midfielder many were craving, the general feeling was still positive as many remembered the impact Herrera had when Athletic outclassed United in the Europa League in 2012. After impressing in pre-season, Herrera has continued his positive form in the league and looks every inch the United player. As this article will discuss, he has already developed into a key player for Louis van Gaal.

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Tactically, his role is extremely important. In the midfield diamond, Angel Di Maria is often moving quite wide, in order to utilise his excellent crossing ability. This leaves Daley Blind often quite exposed in the middle, which is where Herrera is vital. When building up play, it can often look as in the image above. Di Maria (circled in red) charges forward on the wing, with Herrera coming inside rather than moving wide. This basically creates a double pivot at times, with Blind getting support in the build-up phase which is vital as teams will look to stop him getting on the ball as often as he’s done so far.

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This is two seconds later and Di Maria has disappeared from the screen. Blind gets pressed from behind, but thanks to Herrera’s position he can play an easy pass to keep United comfortable in their possession. This move makes it harder for teams to press United, because of the presence of all the attacking players if United were forced to go for the long ball teams will be wary of committing too many players in their pressing.

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In Herrera’s first interview with United’s website he was asked where he plays on the pitch. He answered that he can play as a “six”, an “eight”, or a “ten”. The six is the holding midfielder, in United’s side Blind, the eight is a box-to-box midfielder and the ten is the attacking midfielder, the position Rooney or Mata normally plays. This versatility is proving very beneficial for United as Herrera understands all these roles and can therefore adapt to different situations on the pitch. The image above shows his understanding for the defensive side of the game. Here, United have attacked and lost the ball. Blind has gone up to press the QPR player, but the Dutchman gets turned and a massive space in United’s midfield opens up. Herrera notices the danger and sprints across into a covering position. This may seem natural, but if he doesn’t notice the situation quick enough QPR will have an opportunity to counter-attack against only United’s centre-backs. The ability to read the game is one of Herrera’s biggest strengths.

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This is another position we see the Basque in quite often. Again, he stays centrally in contrast to Di Maria, with the width on the right being provided by Rafael (circled in red). From here, Herrera can easily get on the ball and combine with Blind and Rooney/Mata in the centre as well as Rafael on the flank. The intelligent movement of the midfielder is another of his strengths which help United massively.

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This is just another illustration of the contrasting roles within United’s midfield. Circled in red is Di Maria, who moves quite freely to receive the ball in positions where he can hurt the opposition. The occasional double pivot is evident again here, with Herrera dropping off to create a potential combination with Blind. The width on the right is again provided by Rafael (circled in blue).

Defensively, I’ve already highlighted parts of Herrera’s importance but he gives so much more. First of all, he’s a very energetic player, with the required stamina to keep the same style of play across the 90 minutes. He’s an excellent presser, and also a very good tackler. On average he wins 2.25 tackles per game, the exact same amount as the more defensive Blind. He also intercepts 1.50 passes per game on average which is decent, but could be better. Along with the intelligence I highlighted above, he makes for an excellent asset in United’s defensive game.

Attacking-wise, he has already proved his importance with two goals in the league, one a clever back-heel, and the other a shot from outside the box. His passing is also impressive, with Herrera completing 89% of his passes so far this season as well as creating 1.25 chances per game which indicates creativity considering he isn’t in an attacking position as often as Di Maria on the other side of the diamond.

Finally, we can agree on the Ander Herrera’s start to life at Manchester United has been very impressive and that he seems to be a player we can count on for the coming years.

Article by David Selini.

You can follow him on twitter @DaveSelini