Manchester United kicked off their Premier League season with a 3-1 win away at Dean Court against Bournemouth on Sunday.
With Paul Pogba suspended, Michael Carrick resorted to the bench and Basitian Schweinsteiger seemingly left out of Jose Mourinho’s plans, it was Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini who formed the midfield pairing.
United comfortably diced their way through a hapless Bournemouth midfield, exhibiting a sense of ruthlessness that is typical of a Jose Mourinho side.
The defensive structure was solid, with new signing Eric Bailly and Daley Blind systematically eliminating almost every Bournemouth threat, apart from the excellent Adam Smith goal of course.
United were almost nonchalant in their approach to the game and it was in this system – collectedness coupled with pragmatism – that Ander Herrera thrived alongside Marouane Fellaini.
Although fans were a bit concerned when the line-ups were released revealing a Herrera-Fellaini partnership in a two man midfield – understandable, considering the lack of pace and mobility one of them possesses.
But the duo acquitted themselves with a well round performance throughout the game. Fellaini, chief architect of the Jamie Vardy equaliser for Leicester City in the Community Shield seven days earlier at Wembley, attempted 76 passes of which only one failed to reach his desired target. The ex-Evertonian provided good cover for Herrera who flourished in the role as United’s principal creative force in midfield. The Spaniard displayed a very energetic performance playing as an industrious box-to-box midfielder, providing the pass that led to United’s opener while also showing a sense of maturity when dropping deep.
Herrera attempted more passes than anyone on the pitch – 87, which is significantly higher than his average of 64 throughout the 2015-16 season that underlines his inherent propensity at playing a much deeper & involved role in midfield.
The Basque perhaps provided the two best passes in the first half, first of which was a crisp through ball to release an overlapping Antonio Valencia that eventually produced a decent save from Artur Boruc off a Wayne Rooney shot. The second was a lobbed attempt towards the left flank for Anthony Martial, only for the young Frenchman to be tackled before capitalizing on the opportunity.
It is very unlikely that Mourinho will continue with a two man midfield in a 4-2-3-1 system, more so after the acquisition of Paul Pogba for a world record fee, who will prosper in a free flowing, fluid and flexible 4-3-3 formation.
A midfielder of astute technical prowess and tactical awareness, you could argue that Herrera’s deployment as a deep lying midfielder negates his otherwise great creative vision. Frequently partnered with a not-so-mobile Michael Carrick during Louis van Gaal’s reign, Herrera was often seen outclassed and outnumbered in the middle of the park, raising serious questions on his durability as well as his Manchester United future.
Most passes completed this weekend:
Oriol Romeu (82)
Ander Herrera (76)
Marouane Fellaini (75) pic.twitter.com/jfPi6hg9qM
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) August 15, 2016
When played in a two man midfield, Herrera has on more than one occasion struggled for consistency, appeared stymied, unable to influence the game as well as you would hope him to. Whereas, his performance in a three man midfield, with Ander Iturraspe and Oscar De Marcos, for Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic side, prompted United to bring him to Old Trafford.
Perhaps a change in formation is in order for Mourinho’s United. The Portuguese manager was critically acclaimed for his use of his compatriot Tiago in the centre of a three man midfield in Chelsea’s league winning 2004-05 season, allowing the player to form a bridge between defence and attack – a role Herrera could fulfil given his skill set.
The signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Borussia Dortmund was a welcome relief for fans as the team lacked a player who could orchestrate the team’s offensive strategy. This is where Herrera could be key. Never the protagonist, but always an enthusiastic supporting cast, Herrera could be the link up man – triggering a swift counter attack – a trait that every Mourinho side had in their arsenal.
Heading into the new season, signing a new midfielder was paramount in the minds of everyone associated with United. But Pogba’s eventful acquisition does not answer the gaping hole in the middle of the park that was apparent in the two year reign of Van Gaal. The French international operates best further up the pitch where his distinguished skill set allows him to have a profound influence in the course of the game. He does drop back, helping out the centre backs at times but it is a role that Mourinho cannot afford him, given the lack of attacking impetus in the advanced areas of midfield.
This is where Herrera comes in, alongside Morgan Schneiderlin, to form a guard, while also contributing up front allowing Pogba to unleash his supremacy.
Time will tell how effective the Spaniard could become under Mourinho but with what we have seen in the last few games, it is evident that he has a role to play in the club’s resurgence. And a very important one at that.