Much of what follows wasn’t confirmed by events at The Emirates on Sunday, with a weakened Manchester United falling limply to Arsenal. Ander Herrera was particularly disappointing, but perhaps that can be excused on account of the changes made around him; continuity is important.
Nothing at United is really comparable to the way it was in previous decades. The don’t have a definitive native style, they don’t win as much, and they aren’t nearly as feared. As they’ve tried to spend their way back to the top of the Premier League, their squad has developed a transient, Galacticos-lite quality: it’s long on fame, commercial appeal and pure ability, but short on the kind of soul which was once at its heart. Herrera, however, is a recognisable character from the past.
The Spaniard has been the truest success of the 2016/17 season. From being oddly under-utilised by Louis van Gaal, he has become the nuggety centre of Jose Mourinho’s midfield. The Portuguese evidently trusts Herrera. That’s evidenced by the tactical responsibilities he’s been saddled with in United’s decisive games, but also – more descriptively – in his appearance record: he is one of only four outfield players to start 20 Premier League games for the club this year and only Paul Pogba has begun more.
So Herrera is quite literally the centrepiece of this team and, through sheer regularity, has begun to adopt the greater identity of his club. Think of them, think of him: maybe not definitively, but that’s starting to become the case.
Admittedly though, that’s an association created partly by his personality: Herrera has a rare enthusiasm. His immersion in his profession is, by his own admittance, almost total and that reflects in the way he plays the game. The Spaniard is committed and utterly determined, in thrall to the prospect of winning and singularly focussed on his side’s narrow objectives.
He is not, however, the purest player. Liable to harass referees and extract advantages from wherever he can, he’s naturally disliked by rival supporters. Most would rightly acknowledge that he’s a fine footballer, but would also identify him as an irritant; the sort prone to dramatising the aesthetic of a late tackle, for instance, or to insisting that a stray elbow caught him in the face rather than the chest. He’s that kind: not an outright cheat, but someone who skirts the boundaries of fair play.
Ultimately, opponents who line up against him are taking part in an all-round battle rather than just a technical and tactical contest. As you would expect from someone who drew early influence from Gustavo Poyet and Nicky Butt, he will fight on the beaches, in the fields, and on the hills, and will do so with an “all’s fair” mindset.
Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe Herrera is misunderstood and has earned a reputation as the result of a series of misinforming coincidences? Perhaps, but the perception which surrounds him – false or otherwise – is part of what marks him out as an archetypal Manchester United footballer at a time when such a notion is becoming increasingly vague.
They have always had his sort. A Roy Keane, an Eric Cantona, a Bryan Robson; players who were all outstanding, but whose loyalties were reserved for their team rather than the spirit of the game. The type of characters who antagonised crowds up and down the country but who invariably gave the impression that they couldn’t possibly care less what anyone thought. If they won, the ends always justified the means. Maybe that referred to the winning of a marginal decision or the creation of a subtle emotional advantage over an opponent. Whatever, success was success. The best teams in history have always possessed a bullying quality and, generally, have always depended on players willing to flirt with the lines of decency. Herrera is seemingly more than happy to play that role: to win first, to worry about how it looks later.
Accusations of villainy always sound like criticism. In this case, that’s not intended. It wouldn’t be fair or right to describe those mentioned above as anything other than terrific players or to pretend that, given the choice, any fan in the country wouldn’t have loved to see any one of them wear their team’s colours. Herrera doesn’t have the equivalent gravitas, barely a fraction of it, but he is growing from that DNA. He is very much cut from the “whatever it takes” cloth that is woven into the fabric of success. It’s a quality alluded to by half-a-dozen platitudes – “edge”, “winning mentality”, etc – but whichever label you choose to ascribe, it refers to a bundle of qualities which he unquestionably has.
Herrera is that player. An early version of it, but still one identifiable in dozens of Manchester United team photos from the past.