“I like a second striker in that position [behind Wayne Rooney] more than a third midfielder. That is why, for example, Herrera is not playing but is always coming on as a substitute, because he is more of a controlling midfielder there” – Louis van Gaal.
Speaking in August, Louis van Gaal’s comments on Ander Herrera typify the frustrating nature of the Dutchman. Van Gaal’s philosophy is built on control, strangling the opposition into submission through possession. The very ‘control’ Herrera boasts is precisely what United have screamed out for so often this season.
Where Bastian Schweinsteiger and Morgan Schneiderlin promote an air of calm deep in midfield, Herrera replicates that further forward. Commitment, energy, guile, creativity, the list of Herrera’s positive traits are endless, yet Van Gaal still does not fully trust his second-highest league goalscorer of the calendar year (six, one behind Juan Mata).
The role behind the striker, the No. 10 or second striker, has been a problematic one for United this season. Six separate players have been used there in 14 games in all competitions, with Van Gaal struggling to find a system that suits.
Considering out-of-form Rooney (four), out-on-loan Adnan Januzaj (four), Memphis Depay, Mata and Marouane Fellaini (all one) have started in the role so far this season, the frustration at the lack of chances handed to Herrera is understandable. At Goodison Park the Spaniard was given his third start behind the striker this season, and again he impressed as United swept aside the opposition.
A well-taken goal and sumptuous assist improve the statistics, but Herrera’s most notable contribution was making Rooney look like a passable player. Rooney still has a long way to go to become a key member of the side (in terms of effect rather than reputation), but as long as Van Gaal persists with the Englishman, Herrera must surely be behind him.
8 – Ander Herrera has scored eight goals from just 10 shots on target in the Premier League for @ManUtd. Clinical.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 17, 2015
Of the starters on Saturday afternoon, only Schneiderlin boasted a better pass accuracy (93.2%), no player played more key passes (two) and only Rooney had more shots (also two). This was a masterclass from the 26-year-old, while a joint second-highest three tackles should pacify Van Gaal. For now.
“It’s difficult to drop him, but I can do it,” said Van Gaal after Herrera’s starring role. It’s a familiar story, yet a remarkably frustrating one. The Spaniard’s last Premier League appearance came in a goalscoring performance against Liverpool, but Van Gaal found no space for him in the next three league games. Benching Herrera against CSKA Moscow in the Champions League in midweek would be almost unforgivable. So too against Manchester City in the derby next week, or for the foreseeable future. Rooney may be seen as Van Gaal’s undroppable captain, but Herrera has surely earned the opportunity to become one of the first names on the team sheet.
The problem Herrera faces is clear. Of the four attacking roles at United, three are taken. Rooney, Anthony Martial and Mata will all retain their roles for very different reasons, leaving one more space. Depay’s difficulties in adapting since his summer move have been well-documented, but they could provide Herrera with his best chance yet to establish his own place at Old Trafford. He’s waited long enough.