Premier League

Herrera one of Solskjær's unsung success stories

 • by Ryan Baldi
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With each passing game, as win is followed by win, Ole Gunnar Solskjær strengthens his case to be made the Manchester United manager on a permanent basis from next season onwards.

The Norwegian has steered the Red Devils to victory in all eight of the fixtures he has overseen since taking the reins at Old Trafford in December following José Mourinho’s sacking.

The run of successive wins was already a club record for a new manager at the six-game mark, and much of the praise for the fine work Solskjær has done thus far has focused on attacking players such as Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba as evidence.

But there have been improvements all over the pitch for United, with David de Gea returned to his best form in goal and Victor Lindelöf impressing with his ability to bring the ball out from the back. And in midfield, Ander Herrera looks a player reborn.

The Spaniard is out of contract at the end of the current campaign and, after four seasons at the club, few United fans would have mourned his exit were he to not be offered fresh terms.

Herrera moved to Old Trafford from Athletic Bilbao in the summer of 2014 and initially stood out under Louis van Gaal as a cultured yet combative central midfielder, one able to score and create as well as break up play and disrupt.

But in recent seasons the 29-year-old’s game has shifted focus, with his duties revolving more around stifling man-marking jobs, tactical fouling and protecting the back four.

In just a few short weeks under Solskjær, though, the switch in ethos from the caution of Mourinho to the attack-minded approach now espoused has seen Herrera’s technical ability come to the fore.

“Sometimes we have to defend, but when we defend we know anything can happen because we have so many quick, attacking, offensive players,” Herrera said after the recent 3-1 FA Cup fourth-round victory over Arsenal at the Emirates, commenting on the new approach under Solskjær.

“I can make runs to be in the box, Paul [Pogba] can make runs to drive the ball forward, Ashley [Young], Luke Shaw is allowed to win the ball in the box and make a run even to the opponents’ box.

“Now I am allowed to go into the box soon after I defend. Even Nemanja Matić is allowed to shoot.”

Herrera instantly illustrated how he’d been liberated from his defensive station by scoring just the second goals of Solskjær’s reign, a deflected effort from 25 yards in December’s 5-1 victory away to Cardiff City.

In the following two fixtures, his creativity once again evident, providing assists in wins over Huddersfield Town and Bournemouth.

The front-foot approach under Solskjær is giving Herrera more opportunities to get on the ball than previously. Since the Norwegian arrived, the midfielder’s average for passes per 90 minutes has risen from 54.49 to 69.26, with his pass accuracy increasing from 86 per cent to 90 per cent.

Herrera is also showcasing slightly more ambition when on the ball now, too, making 0.76 open-play key passes per 90, opposed to 0.66 for the season under Mourinho’s tutelage. He is also able to dribble more, completing 0.57 take-ons per 90, up from 0.16, as he has the confidence and freedom to carry the ball through pressure.

The tactical discipline that made him an asset for Mourinho still remains, however, and has been a vital component in recent wins over Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal, in which United have absorbed pressure and employed a counter-attacking strategy.

In the FA Cup triumph at the Emirates, Herrera made three tackles, one interception and two clearances as United finished with just a 37.2 per cent share of possession.

Herrera has remained philosophical about his contract situation, insisting, “if I deserve a new contract, the contract will come”. But, as is the case with Solskjær, if he continues to perform at his current level United would be foolish not to keep him around.

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