There has been much to smile about during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s stewardship of the Manchester United throne.
The Norwegian replaced Jose Mourinho after a dismal defeat at Liverpool and immediately breathed new life into the Red Devils over the festive period, becoming the first manager in the club’s history to win his first five games at the helm.
And a lot of United’s squad have been seemingly lifted by the arrival of the ‘99 Treble hero. Marcus Rashford has flourished in attack, Paul Pogba has stamped his authority in midfield and Victor Lindelof has looked assured at the heart of defence. David de Gea even ended his long wait for a clean sheet when United shut out Newcastle at St James’ Park.
But Ander Herrera deserves his share of the spotlight, too. As United’s tenacious, snappy presence in midfield, the Basque native has been one of the unheralded stars during Solskjaer’s brief reign.
Here, we take a closer look at his role in United’s resurgence.
Loyal to United through thick and thin
Since signing from Athletic Bilbao in 2014, the two-time Spain international has spent a lot of time fighting for his place in the United team.
In fact, while some absences can be attributed to injury, Herrera has managed more than 20 Premier League starts in a season just once for United (27 during Mourinho’s first year in 2016/17).
But while he has often spent time out of the team, Herrera is the ultimate team player. What he lacks in craft and guile, he makes up for in spirit and intelligence.
The 29-year-old was, at times, asked by Mourinho to carry out daunting, thankless tasks, like man-marking Eden Hazard in games against Chelsea or acting as a makeshift central defender in a back three for the visit of Tottenham to Old Trafford in August.
Losing 3-0 to Spurs proved that Herrera was not suited to the rigours of playing in a back three but he has shone in a more natural role slightly higher up the pitch in recent weeks.
Partnering Nemanja Matic in midfield, he’s been an integral cog in United’s early success under Solskjaer. In fact, in the latter, angst-ridden stages of Mourinho’s tenure, the former Real Zaragoza man was not one of those in the firing line. While Pogba and Romelu Lukaku were often criticised, there were signs Herrera was coming into form even before Mourinho’s dismissal.
He started a productive December with a crucial equaliser in the 2-2 draw at Southampton, producing a classy flick to convert Marcus Rashford’s cross. He then turned provider for Anthony Martial’s opener as United played out another 2-2 draw, at home to Arsenal.
Nailing down his place post-Mourinho
Herrera has continued to impress under Solskjaer. After scoring via a deflection in the 5-1 rout of Cardiff City, he showcased his creative talents in the next two games, teeing up Pogba’s first against Huddersfield before providing another for the Frenchman in the win over Bournemouth with an excellent cross from the right flank.
His influence in the final third has been a welcome bonus but it’s difficult to look beyond Herrera’s more tenacious, ball-winning qualities further back. In fact, this season, only Everton midfielder Idrissa Gueye boasts more tackles per 90 (4.27) than the United man’s 3.97. Likewise, he is also ranked second for interceptions per 90 and his 20.62 forward passes per game is enough to rank him in the top ten.
These all point to the abilities which encapsulate Herrera: positional sense, astute reading of the game and the capacity to move the ball quickly through midfield.
Herrera hasn’t always had it his own way at Old Trafford. In the 2016 FA Cup semi-final against Everton, with the score locked at 1-1, he was introduced as a late substitute and sent Martial through in injury time to seal his side’s place in the final. Having played his part in getting them there, Herrera was left on the bench by Louis van Gaal as United beat Crystal Palace in the showpiece.
Similarly, he spent three months out of the starting line-up last season before Mourinho recalled him for the derby win over Manchester City in April. A few weeks later, he scored the winner in the FA Cup semi-final win over Spurs at Wembley and kept his place for the decider with Chelsea.
Herrera will be looking to inflict more misery on Spurs this Sunday. He is one of several players thriving in the Solskjaer era, so much so that he is keen to extend his contract.
Given his gutsy displays of late, there’s no question the United fans want him to remain at the club beyond this season too.
* odds subject to change