In what had become their most crucial match of the season, Manchester United once again displayed the resilience and belief that have come to the fore in recent months, coming from behind to defeat another top rival. Tottenham took a fully-deserved lead after dominating the opening thirty minutes, when United were in disarray at the back, and perhaps fortunate they remained only goal behind. Yet they clawed their way back into the game, consolidated by a strong, measured second half performance to secure the victory. This United team is far from perfect, but it was further evidence of the toughness and spirit it possesses, after similar recent recoveries against Chelsea and Man City.
Typifying that resilience was Ander Herrera. It was fitting that he scored the winner, for he was the best player on the pitch. There were stellar performances from Pogba and Sanchez (and a superb first half display by Tottenham’s Eriksen), but it was United’s Spanish midfielder who glued his team together. All of his attributes were on show: his neat, intelligent use of the ball, the swift change of direction to gain a yard of space, tireless energy and passion, and his usual combative attitude. There’s a decent argument to be made that he’s United most complete player, equally effective in possession as out of it. It’s to his credit that it’s difficult to think of many midfielders who share similar attributes.
As has been the case throughout his time at United, he’s been under-used this season; yesterday was only his 22nd start in all competitions. Partly through injury, and partly due to the establishing of Pogba and Matic as a partnership. Mourinho’s recent preference for a three-man midfield, possibly in the hope of re-energising Pogba, has allowed Herrera a route back to the starting eleven. United look a better team for it. As a trio, the three players provide a perfect balance: in addition to being excellent on the ball, Matic supplies calmness and composure, Pogba brings the flair and creativity, while Herrera gives the team the bite and snarl it needs.
Pogba and Matic ooze class, but occasionally look too slow, too languid. They stroll when they should run. Herrera instantly provides the dynamism and the energy that United’s engine room sorely needs.
The combination also gives the team a stronger structure: Pogba’s defensive lapses are covered, and when necessary, Matic can sit deeper, allowing Herrera to drive forward, as he did yesterday to smash home the winner. His long-range shooting has been a constant disappointment at United; the ball regularly flies into the stand. It’s certainly an area for improvement, but he has shown, particularly during a spell under Van Gaal, that he has got an eye for a goal. What a boost to the team it would be if Herrera and Pogba could continue to be given greater licence to join the attack. Goals from central midfield have been scarce since Scholes was in his pomp, far too long for a club of United’s stature.
It will be interesting to see if Mourinho perseveres with the 4-3-3 formation. While it affords greater solidity, it means one less offensive player makes the starting line-up. That doesn’t necessarily blunt United’s attack, however, for it frees up Pogba, in particular, to exert greater influence higher up the pitch. His tendency to drift to the left also allows Sanchez to roam elusively across the pitch, as he did to great effect against Tottenham. It’s likely that Mourinho will acquire at least one more midfielder this summer, but, even if that happens, yesterday’s match confirmed that Herrera will continue to be a crucial player for United. Quite simply, he makes them a better team.