He’s perhaps yet to fully appreciate it, but life at Manchester United changed for Ander Herrera on April 16 this year.
Before taking on Chelsea at Old Trafford, the Basque midfielder’s energy and craft had certainly established himself as a growing favourite among fans but in successfully neutering Eden Hazard, while laying on an assist and scoring the second in a 2-0 victory, propelled him front and centre in Jose Mourinho’s evolution of the Red Devils.
Herrera never left the Belgian’s side, forcing him to play with his back constantly to goal, preventing him from turning and rendering his dribbling ineffective.
Paradoxically, it affected his previous calling cards, his passing was wayward as Mourinho’s instructions led him to attempting a series of long balls. But Old Trafford didn’t care. Hazard was an afterthought in a game that was arguably United’s performance of the season.
Subsequently, Herrera now represents the man who channels the fan on the field. His energy and workrate infectious, and the right amount of devilment to get the blood racing. For Herrera, it was another day at the office.
“It was Mourinho’s plan more than me,” the 27-year-old said. “We knew Hazard is Chelsea’s best player, the most difficult to mark – their most dangerous player. I was the one who was taking care of him.
“I just tried to not let him receive the ball easily; to make the game difficult for him. But when we had the ball I tried to play as well, that’s why I scored and got an assist.
“For me, Hazard is the best player in the Premier League and one of the best of the world and it was a good game for me.”
Post-Ferguson, United have gone through significant changes. With little coherence in strategy in the dugout and transfer market, they have lacked identity.
In an increasingly distant football landscape, supporters need a player to get behind on a more personal level. And while Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored the goals to inspire a certain section of the fanbase, Herrera has emerged as one of the few imported talents to truly get Manchester United.
Like Eric Cantona, Peter Schmeichel and Patrice Evra before him, Herrera exudes an understanding of what’s required to be a Red Devil. With extra emphasis on the latter.
“I have been really happy at United since the first day. The only thing I can do is to give everything every game and every minute of the time I am on the pitch,” he adds, speaking last week at the launch of the adidas Nemeziz range in London.
“I think the fans have the same view: I can play sometimes good, sometimes not as good but the only thing I try to do is give everything. That’s what our fans want. They can forgive you if you miss a pass or make a mistake but as long as you give everything, that is what they want to watch.”
Herrera’s marriage of tenacity, talent and tactical awareness can be drawn from a football heritage which takes in Real Zaragoza and Athletic Bilbao – clubs who pride themselves in Spain as possessing as much heart and fight as they do ability. Two seasons spent under Marcelo Bielsa at San Mames also helped shape his understanding of the game plus honing a selfless attitude.
Up to his early 20s, Herrera was also a journalism student, indicating a knowledge beyond just being able to stop especially fast Belgian wingers from skipping around you.
A rounded and grounded individual who looks you sincerely in the eye when talking, he had learnt English before sealing his United move and is a genuine admirer of football culture in the British Isles.
With all this mixed together, it’s no surprise to hear him constantly in the discussion regarding the next United captain. Wayne Rooney has held that honour since 2014 but the striker’s alarming decline means Mourinho will almost certainly be looking for a new leader come August.
“I am very thankful for the people who think so… but I prefer to be careful with that,” he adds. “All the United captains have won everything for the club but I haven’t done yet. Hopefully one day I can. But to be honest I just want to keep playing and improving.”
Those captains include some of the most successful players in the club’s history – Bryan Robson, Roy Keane and Gary Neville – all players who you can see elements of in Herrera who, despite his modesty, has won four trophies – Europa League, FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield – in just two seasons.
Exactly the sort of winning mentality that goes hand-in-hand with Mourinho, a manager who has encouraged him to develop his game and go beyond just being a ball-playing midfielder. The Portuguese’s faith runs in contrast to predecessor Louis van Gaal who, inexplicably, started him in just 17 Premier League matches in the season before his dismissal. Herrera, though, bears no ill-will to the Dutchman.
“When one manager is not here anymore I don’t think it is fair to talk about them,” he insists. “Mourinho is a winner – three trophies in his first season shows how he works and the way he is and I am really happy playing for him. Hopefully I can do it for a long time. I am going to learn, to experience the time with him and try to improve but I can be very thankful for all the managers I’ve had.”
That Europa League final victory over Ajax last month has given the Portuguese greater bargaining power in this summer’s transfer market as United look to become a genuine Premier League title-winning force again.
Antoine Griezmann may not be arriving but significant investment is sure to be made. Despite the likelihood of more changes to the XI, Herrera hopes his partnership in midfield with Paul Pogba is allowed to blossom.
“It is easy to play with him, he is a top player. He likes to attack more than me so when we both play together I have to protect the defence more,” he says. “I try to keep my position more because you know Paul has the ability to score; the ability to head, to shoot, to dribble – he has everything.
“I think we have a good partnership, hopefully we can play together for a long time and win trophies for the club.”
Herrera’s own future has been a matter for some conjecture, with Barcelona mentioned as a potential suitor given his status as a technically-adept and successful Spanish player yet to fully hit his ceiling.
Added to that is the recent arrival of his former Athletic Bilbao coach Ernesto Valverde at the Nou Camp. Herrera, for the record, insists he has no plans of leaving United nor will talk of such possibility in the future. But he was still happy to outline just what Valverde will bring to the Blaugrana.
He adds: “He’s a very smart manager. He doesn’t have one style of football; he adapts himself to the players’ abilities. That’s the most important thing he has.
“Also, the way he treats people, the egos in the club and the team, is very important.
“I was with him for only one year but I really enjoyed it. He is very sincere, very transparent and I think he’s going to be very successful there.”
Herrera’s success story, though, will almost certainly remain in Manchester.