The headlines may have been grabbed by the signing of Paul Pogba but Manchester United’s ambitions may be better met by their Iberian pairing of Juan Mata and Ander Herrera. Pogba has an important role to play but the expectations are that he will carry the team on his own and that isn’t going to happen.
Mata is an unlikely hero. Popular with players and supporters alike, he and Jose Mourinho have a history together. Bad history. It was the Portuguese who sold the Spaniard to United during his time at Stamford Bridge and the parting of the ways wasn’t pleasant.
For success to be achieved at Old Trafford, many thought that the hatchet would be buried. Mata hoped it wouldn’t be on his back.
Mourinho is holding out the olive branch, revising history. Mata was a key player at Chelsea according to the new wisdom and Mourinho didn’t want him to go. It’s music to the Spaniard’s ears, the only question is whether it is off-key.
Mata, according to the new United boss, is the perfect player at Old Trafford. “The football we want to play here is different,” he claimed. “I think Mata is very adept to do that with his qualities. We need players with these qualities. He has found a very good natural habitat.”
Under Van Gaal, Old Trafford became bored. United were all too often one-dimensional and focussed firstly on stifling the opposition. With a player like Mata, that tactical idea is counterproductive. He isn’t a defender but give him the ball and the guile which was so sorely missed during the Dutchman’s reign, is evident by the bucketload.
A mercurial player, Mata can unpick defences in any way you can think of: dribbling, shooting from range, a well-measured pass; he genuinely does have it all. Dragging that out of him consistently is the key and most difficult part.
But he is only one part of the solution to the puzzle which currently confounds Mourinho. The United express was derailed but got back on track with last weekend’s thrashing of defending champions Leicester City.
Ander Herrera was a boyhood Manchester United fan. Growing up in the Basque region, it was inevitable he would sign for Athletic Bilbao albeit via Real Zaragoza initially. From there, he moved to Old Trafford, the only place he could envisage going if he was leaving home.
Into his third season at United, he is increasingly popular with supporters. Becoming a bit-part player under Louis Van Gaal, Mourinho has shown faith in the Spanish international. The midfielder has more balance to his game than he was given credit for by the Dutch manager. Not as overtly defensive as Michael Carrick and Morgan Schneiderlin, he is more adventurous than either, capable of adding a new dimension to the attack.
His new manager wants to harness that attacking spirit but add defensive discipline. Carrick is heading toward the footballing pasture and Herrera has the potential to be his natural successor, with added attacking potency.
Herrera is an adaptable player, one who can fulfil a number of roles in the United starting line-up. That versatility may have been damning in the past but now is a positive attribute in players. He has shown a knack for getting forward, the most attack-minded of the midfield when he scored in the recent EFL cup-tie at Northampton.
The question is whether he can develop into the all-encompassing midfield role and meet Mourinho’s expectations at the same time. United want silverware, it’s the only reason any club hires the Portuguese and if it isn’t arriving, he won’t waste any time in changing the weak links – as he perceives them – in the line-up.
If Herrera is learning his trade in a new role, time is not his friend and no amount of popularity with supporters will save him.
The signs are encouraging. Herrera has vision with strong distribution, preferring a forward pass to one sideways or back. He isn’t averse to going Route One either and United have profited previously from the mayhem this can cause.
It’s mainly a question of balance. Is he too similar to Schneiderlin or Mata at the moment to work well with both? Certainly Schneiderlin seems to be heading toward an Old Trafford exit, having made just a solitary substitute appearance in the Premier League so far. There is a long way to go yet in the season but with the new manager seemingly intent on ignoring his abilities, the Frenchman is looking for a new home already.
Part of the problem is Pogba. At £89m, he isn’t going to be a substitute or cast to the winds. His style is the very mix which Herrera can offer: box-to-box with a fine range of passing and shooting. Can United accommodate the pair and someone else in the defensive role? At the moment, that is Marouane Fellaini but recent results are not favourable and this is a results-based business.
Herrera though is the future hope and accommodating him now, letting him learn his trade in public is one ‘pain’ United and Mourinho must undertake.
Combined with Mata, the Iberian apex to the midfield can provide United with a wide array of options going forward. Harnessing them is a pivotal task but Mourinho has built bridges quickly after a summer in which Mata seemed likely to leave. It’s vital that he gets them working in tandem to United’s benefit to ensure progress is made.