Oscar de Marcos looked offside, but the real story was the pass. Picking the ball up between the Manchester United lines, Ander Herrera scooped up a delicious lofted pass to bypass the defence.
It was typical of the imagination shown by Athletic Bilbao in their 3-2 win over United that day in March 2012. “There’s no doubt Bilbao were the better side,” said Sir Alex Ferguson of Marcelo Bielsa’s team. “They were very aggressive in their attacking and pressing.”
Ferguson was understating. The reality was even more damning. Kevin McCarra wrote in The Guardian that United “defended in a manner that looked increasing preposterous as Athletic performed with vigour and finesse,” while The Telegraph’s Henry Winter wrote of how the hosts were “embarrassed by the superior work-rate, passing, movement and finishing” of the visitors.
United recovered from this chastening experience to win the Premier League the following season with the overwhelming firepower of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney proving decisive. And yet, with the benefit of hindsight, the warning signs were evident. A rebuilding job was required, David Moyes just wasn’t the man to do it. That night in March offered a blueprint for a new United.
If the summer signing of Luke Shaw offers the prospect of renewal in defence, it is the acquisition of Herrera that really intrigues. Described by Sky Sports’ Spanish expert Guillem Balague as “an intelligent, quick attacking midfielder with a great brain and a superb attitude” this is surely the type of player that United must learn to embrace again if they are to progress.
Herrera ranked among the top four players in La Liga last season for successful through-balls, behind Cesc Fabregas and Isco but level with Andres Iniesta. Given the teams the others play for, his numbers are arguably even more impressive. United have signed a key player from a fine team and one with the potential to play a transformative role in their midfield.
It’s a big ask for one man. Indeed, the bald statistics of five goals and five assists in La Liga for Athletic last season suggest such a dramatic influence might be regarded as a little optimistic. But the embers of a good side remain at Old Trafford. The finishers are there, they need the facilitators. That has to come from the centre of the pitch.
“The key for me is that the speed of their game through the midfield is not quick enough,” Gary Neville told the Mail on Sunday. “United have always been about those relentless waves of attacks, sustained for good periods without counter, which would eventually overwhelm the opposition.”
With Marouane Fellaini arguably played out of position and Michael Carrick needing quick movement around him, it’s been a difficult period for the game shapers in the middle. Regardless of the options further forward in the final third, having quality in that area of the field is crucial.
Herrera cannot be regarded a deep-lying midfielder in the Andrea Pirlo mould – the bulk of his appearances have come in an attacking midfield role – but his arrival offers that possibility. It seems apparent that Louis van Gaal regards Herrera as a more energetic option for the bridging role between defence and attack than long-time target Toni Kroos.
The 24-year-old is certainly a flexible performer capable of operating in the middle band of a 4-3-3 formation and the prospect of fitting both him and Juan Mata into the same team is something to excite rather than challenge Van Gaal. Encouragingly, it’s been done before. The duo were part of the Spain Under-21 side that won the 2011 European Championships.
Together with David de Gea – in fact all three were named in the team of the tournament with Mata nominated as the best player – Herrera thrived, scoring the opening goal in the final. His role, in a midfield three with Mata on the right of the forward line, offers a glimpse of the potential for the pair to interact together in tight areas in a way that was so alarmingly absent last term.
Moyes was keen for his players to occupy their zones and stretch the play by retaining the shape. The problem is that this effectively discourages players from getting close to each other and creating precisely the sort of triangles than see technically gifted players produce their best work.
Will the presence of Herrera in Van Gaal’s team help change that? Physics defines critical mass as the minimum amount of fissile material needed to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. By the same token, if Van Gaal can get Herrera and Mata interacting, their impact could have an exponential effect throughout the team. Perhaps there’s even life in the ‘Free Shinji’ campaign too.
Of course, speed is needed – especially in wide areas – and that’s what Shaw can bring. But the signing of Herrera brings speed of thought too. The combination of the two could be huge for Manchester United – and that lesson from Bielsa’s Bilbao will have been one worth learning.
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