Debate still rages over whether Manchester United‘s 2016/17 campaign was a successful one. Some argue that two major trophies won (three, if you buy José Mourinho’s inclusion of the Community Shield) signified a job well done; others suggest a sixth-place Premier League finish cannot be papered over by triumph in Europe’s secondary club competition and the League Cup.
But, on an individual level, there is no doubt that Ander Herrera’s performances last season were worthy of acclaim, with the recently-capped Spain international being voted the club’s Player of the Year.
However, since the new term commenced, Herrera has struggled to rediscover his best form, offering little of the bite and quality in midfield that saw him previously stand out.
The 28-year-old, who was signed from Athletic Bilbao for £28million in the summer of 2014, is perhaps a victim of Nemanja Matić‘s move from Chelsea to Old Trafford, with the Serbian powerhouse initially taking the Spaniard’s place in Mourinho’s midfield, paired with Paul Pogba in a double pivot.
That, understandably, will have upset Herrera’s rhythm, receiving just 131 Premier League minutes in August and September combined. But injuries to Pogba and Marouane Fellaini – who had also leapfrogged him in the pecking order – have meant the Basque midfielder has featured regularly in recent weeks, starting six of United‘s last seven games and completing a full 90 minutes five times in that period.
Yet still Herrera looks a shadow of his former self. An occurrence made all the more alarming by the fact that, alongside Matić, he has, in theory, benefitted from greater creative freedom of late than he did last season, when he was often tasked with performing the unfamiliar anchor role the Serb has since assumed.
Last term, despite a largely more defensive remit that he had been used to in previous seasons, Herrera registered six Premier League assists, leading United in this department, matched only by Anthony Martial.
His incisive and intelligent forward passing was an asset for the Red Devils, helping to transition between phases and carve openings in the opposition defences.
This season, however, he has been far less productive creatively, despite having more freedom alongside Matić, and tasked with picking up the creative mantle in Pogba’s absence. As the above graphic shows, Herrera, who has no assists to his name to date in the 2017/18 Premier League campaign, is making fewer key passes per 90 minutes (0.7 compared to 1.3).
His diminished creativity is also evidenced by comparing his expected assists (xA) stats for this season to last. This measures the probability of each key pass leading to a goal, based on historical data. With an xA per 90 this term of 0.09, compared to last season’s 0.15, we can see that the chances he is creating of generally of a lower quality and/or frequency.
Moreover, Herrera has become less involved in United‘s general play, attempting 68.6 passes per 90 compared to 76.2 last season. This could indicate many things: a change in his tactical role; the onus for dictating tempo falling instead to Matić (who is averaging 70.9 passes per 90); United seeing less of the ball in recent games – or, indeed, a combination of all of these theories.
It might also betray a dip in the player’s confidence, especially when considering his pass accuracy has fallen marginally, too. Maybe Herrera feels less comfortable taking responsibility for constructing and orchestrating his side’s passing moves on current form.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Herrera’s game last season was the improvement he made in his anticipation. Learning from experience, he became more adept at reading the progression of the opposition’s moves, and was therefore better able to break up play through interceptions. His average of three interceptions per 90 last term could not be bettered by any Premier League midfielder.
This average, too, has slipped for Herrera this season, but 2.4 interceptions per 90 is still a thoroughly respectable return. And the presence of Matić as a dedicated defensive midfielder alongside him was always going to lead to a drop-off in this department for the former Real Sociedad man.
It is, however, concerning that Herrera’s production and accuracy with the ball at his feet seems to have declined so quickly. Although it remains highly likely that a one-year extension option will be triggered in the coming months, the fact that United have allowed his contact to run down to the point where, as things stand, he’ll be a free agent next summer, is hardly a vote of confidence.
As one of the most influential players at Mourinho’s disposal last season, Herrera has gone from protagonist to passenger in the United midfield in a matter of months. He must rediscover his peak form as a matter of urgency if he hopes to remain a key player – or even a player at all – at Old Trafford beyond the current campaign.