Ander Herrera comes in from the cold to lead Manchester United to yet another Wembley cup final
Last season’s player of the year has elbowed his way into manager Jose Mourinho’s plans after spending much of the campaign confined to the bench
Footballers, coaches and executives are regulars on the Manchester-Barcelona route since England’s north-west is full of Spanish players – though some travel differently from others.
A private jet used by Pep Guardiola and his family was twice searched by Spanish police looking to see if it was smuggling exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to England this year, while a month ago, a man in a tracksuit opted against priority boarding as he walked to the back of the queue for a budget flight from Barcelona.
Manchester United’s Ander Herrera was barely recognised as he boarded for a trip to the city he’s called home since 2014.
Having again been overlooked by Spain during international week, the midfielder had travelled to Zaragoza, the city he grew up in, where many friends and family live and where Real Zaragoza, the team he supports, play. Herrera, who stood on the terraces and saw Zaragoza win Spain’s Copa del Rey against Real Madrid in 2003, has suffered watching Zaragoza in the last decade. Yet after five years out of Spain’s top flight, they were on a six-game winning run as they pushed for promotion and faced Sevilla’s B team, who were going down and had lost their previous 10 games.
Herrera watched Zaragoza lose 1-0 and was left cursing Sevilla FC, whose top flight team had just knocked United out of the Uefa Champions League, once again.
When the 28-year-old’s career is over, he’ll likely return to live in Zaragoza, where he started out before joining Athletic Bilbao and then United.
As he sat on that plane to Manchester, United’s player of the year last season had seen only 21 minutes of league action since combining well with Paul Pogba in a New Year’s Day English Premier League win at Everton.
Injuries and non-selection had pushed Herrera to the Old Trafford periphery with only eight league starts in the first 32 games this term, but not once did he consider leaving United. He enjoys being at the club and wants to stay, even though he naturally wants to play more.
Not only has he done that in the month since he returned from Spain, he’s been one of United’s best players. Man of the match in Saturday’s impressive FA Cup semi-final win over Tottenham Hotspur, Herrera starred in the win at Manchester City and also shone in last week’s 2-0 win at Bournemouth, sliding a ball through the Cherries defence which led to the opening goal.
The Spaniard also launched the move for the second before Anthony Martial flicked the ball to Paul Pogba for a driving run forward.
Although dreadful against West Brom in the defeat which confirmed City as champions on April 15, the Herrera, Nemanja Matic and Pogba midfield triumvirate shows promise.
Herrera is more positionally disciplined than the more talented Pogba and he also tackles more than the others. Herrera’s got a tenacious edge and drive to his game which United fans also like. He breaks up play and can quickly turn possession into an attack.
As a child, Herrera played futsal and credits the smaller ball and tighter spaces with forging his style. He also intercepts, moves from box-to-box and he scored the winner at Wembley on Saturday.
Tottenham’s highly rated midfielders Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier, who United tried to sign last year, started the game better and their side enjoyed far more possession, but Pogba, Matic and Herrera were their superiors after Alexis Sanchez’s splendid 25th-minute equaliser.
Criticised for his ineffective autumn performances as United lost at Huddersfield and Chelsea and still overlooked by Spain who have a surfeit of talented midfielders, the versatile Herrera – who thinks he can play as a number 6, 8 or 10 – enjoys his annual spring flourish.
He hit form in spring 2015 under Louis van Gaal and his man of the match performance last April against champions Chelsea tipped fans towards voting for him in their player of the year award.
Herrera is a grounded individual who loves football and knows what it’s like to be a match going football fan.
“I wanted to come to England, I was always fascinated by the football culture, the full stadiums for every game, the fact that any team can take points off the others, the huge numbers of travelling supporters,” he told me last year. “My experience has been as positive as I hoped.”
Watch: Manchester United fans sing the Ander Herrera song
Since then he’s has his ups and downs. He wasn’t the only United player to find Van Gaal’s management style challenging, but he’s about to complete a fourth season at United alongside close friends and compatriots Juan Mata and David de Gea, a teammate in Spain’s under-21s.
Herrera believes he has become a better player since he left Spain.
His father Pedro, a former professional with Zaragoza and Celta Vigo, told me: “When I look at my son, I see a man who has been very happy in England. He has a manager who best understands how he plays, a trainer for whom he has a strong respect. I also think he’s improved as a player. Physically, he’s stronger and fitter. He’s faster, too, he thinks quicker now which is important in England.”
Father and son seldom discuss his games. Pedro laughed as he explained: “Maybe I’m too critical. Ander is very independent. I realised that when he was seven and didn’t want to discuss games with me. He was always a boy with a more mature and responsible mind. He wanted to think for himself.”
United’s number 21 is in a good moment and, given his excellent form, he’ll be favoured to start in another cup final.
United haven’t troubled the league in Herrera’s time at the club, but have reached three different cup finals in the last 14 months and Herrera’s started in all. Given he was harshly sent off against Chelsea in last season’s competition which influenced United’s elimination, he’s certainly got reason to hope that May lives up to its billing as a merry month when United meet them at Wembley.