Ander Herrera's best may surface under Jose Mourinho
Jose Mourinho's arrival at Manchester United may be cause for concern for Juan Mata (the manager sold the midfielder just months after returning to Chelsea in the summer of 2013), but his compatriot Ander Herrera will likely be quite excited.
When United signed Herrera from Athletic Bilbao in June 2014, he was widely regarded as the quintessential Louis van Gaal midfielder. Technically gifted and tactically smart, he was the type of player who brought the Dutchman great success earlier in his coaching career. Yet Herrera's two years at Manchester United seem to represent most of the failings of Van Gaal's reign.
In retrospect, Herrera probably suffered most from United's 5-3 defeat away to Leicester City on Sept. 21, 2014, the game which many people identified as the moment Van Gaal opted for a cautious, stultifying brand of football. In between injuries, Herrera found himself confined to the bench for large stretches of the 2014-15 season.
When he was finally called into action during the 2015-16 campaign, it was often as a part of a two-man midfield with a far less mobile partner, leaving him overworked and outmanned. At one point, Herrera even found himself in a role just in front of the back four, a position perfectly designed to negate the very best of his attacking instincts.
If there are any clues as to how Mourinho may use him, a good place to start is looking at how he deployed Tiago at Chelsea. Tiago was the centre of a three-man midfield tasked with shuttling the ball between defence and attack, and he was highly effective in that role. Herrera has a rare blend of skills -- he's a progressive passer, able to smuggle the ball out from tight spaces and still diligent on defence -- and Mourinho will surely use all of these attributes to best effect.
Given his ability to score and provide assists, Herrera has often been expected to act as his team's primary creative force, yet in reality he is an extremely talented link man. He is the first member of his team's supporting cast, rather than its protagonist.
With the capture of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund, United now have an elite playmaker to whom Herrera can play deputy. Prior to Mkhitaryan's signing, the team lacked someone who could consistently organise the attack; Mata largely failed to impose himself in that guise and often moved the ball a fraction too slow against well-organised defences. Should Paul Pogba join, then Herrera will be part of a midfield, alongside Morgan Schneiderlin, that will be able to hold its own against any in the world.
Of course, there were several games in which Herrera put in poor performances, with one such outing against West Bromwich Albion in March of this year. On that occasion, he seemed stymied, unable to execute the simplest of passes, and was withdrawn at half-time. Yet even then, he was under the constraints of a repressive tactical approach that robbed him of the chance to play with flair.
Some would argue that Mourinho's teams are little better in this respect, but a case in the new manager's defence is his Real Madrid team, where Mesut Ozil, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Kaka moved seamlessly in attack. Mourinho, of course, is a master at hitting teams on the break, and Herrera will be vital in that scheme, given his ability to move swiftly through midfield. With exceptional pace ahead of him in the form of Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, Herrera should see his assists tally increase sharply.
The Spaniard should also aim to see himself on the goalscorer sheet on a more regular basis. A key feature of his play is his ability to arrive late in the area and take up dangerous positions while defenders are distracted by the team's front line. This quality was of course the hallmark of Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes, two players who were notably prolific at their best. The havoc that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will undoubtedly bring should result in more scoring opportunities for Herrera, who has the calmness to finish that could, and arguably should, yield between 10 and 15 goals this season.
A revitalised Herrera is arguably as important to United's title chances as almost any of the club's signings this summer. At United, he has rarely shown the consistency that allowed him to make a name for himself at Bilbao. While Andres Iniesta, Isco and Co. stand between Herrera and the international stage right now, he can at least console himself with the thought of being pivotal for United as they look to return to prominence on both domestic and European fronts.