Some would argue that Ander Herrera mistimed the challenge he made in the middle of the pitch on Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso, clipping the Spaniard’s heels as he threatened to break away, earning the Manchester United midfielder a yellow card.
But Herrera, despite pantomime protests of innocence, knows he timed his tackle in the 42nd minute just as he had intended; just as he had shortly before, when Eden Hazard wriggled free 20 yards from goal in United’s 1-1 draw with the Blues at Old Trafford.
Herrera was making his first start since a 2-0 win over Watford on 30 March. Sidelined with a hamstring injury, United lost five of their six games without the combative Spain international.
United didn’t get the win they craved at Old Trafford on Sunday afternoon, and with just one win from their last five Premier League games, their top-four ambitions may have to be shelved for the season.
But they were better here. It’s a low bar, given their humbling losses at the hands of Barcelona, Everton and Manchester City recently. But were it not for another David de Gea blunder – the third time in four games the once-unshakable shot-stopper has committed an error directly leading to a goal – spilling Antonio Rudiger’s speculative, tame effort from 30 yards at the end of the first half, which was pounced on by Alonso, they might well have been celebrating a victory over a direct rival in the race for the final Champions League-qualifying berth.
And Herrera’s return played no small part in United’s uptick against the Blues.
He had little to do with the game’s opening goal, Juan Mata finishing off a fine move made up of a driving Luke Shaw run and cut-back after Romelu Lukaku displayed the kind of subtleness he is seldom associated with, daintily chipping into the marauding left-back’s path.
But Herrera’s presence was instrumental in limiting Chelsea’s attacking efforts – Rudiger’s shot was the away side’s first on target – through fair means or foul, and even a late rally saw Maurizio Sarri’s men trouble the home goal little.
Only one United player saw more of the ball against Chelsea than Herrera (76 touches) and few were as reliable with it (89.1% of his passes picked out a red shirt). Lining up on the right side of United’s diamond-shaped midfield, Herrera brought a degree of balance and commitment rare in recent displays.
In the deepest positon, Nemanja Matic was as imposing yet also as immobile as an oak tree that creaks under a gentle breeze; Herrera was his legs. Paul Pogba flitted in and out from the left, offering moments of inspiration along with spells of anonymity; Herrera’s presence was constant. And Mata, fielded for once in his favoured No.10 role, brought creativity but little in the way of effective off-the-ball work; Herrera filled spaces.
Herrera is snarl, he is bite, he is snide; but he can pass, he cajoles, he has the tactical awareness to plug gaps as they open up within his side, the kind of which United’s opponents have raced through in his absence. Yet just as he returns to the line-up, United may soon be losing him again, this time for good.
For several reasons, their capture of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal in January 2018 is looking more and more like the most misguided signing United have ever made. The Chilean has completely failed to deliver on the pitch, but it is at the negotiating table where the decision to make him the highest-paid player in the Premier League haunts United most.
A bigger transfer fee was spent and thus wasted on Angel Di Maria in 2014, but the way United obliterated their wage structure to sign Sanchez means not only are they left with a rapidly depreciating asset for which there is no market, but several players with dwindling contracts are now demanding a measure of parity.
As it is with David de Gea, so it is with Ander Herrera, whose Old Trafford deal expires in two months’ time, and who reportedly has an offer on the table from Paris Saint-Germain which far outstrips what United are putting forward.
This isn’t to suggest United should match the reported £200,000 a week the Basque midfielder has on the table from PSG: committing to such a huge contract for Sanchez is a mistake they should not compound by offering inflated terms to others.
But United’s lack of forethought has manufactured a lose-lose scenario when it comes to Herrera: either they pay over the odds to retain a player who turns 30 in August, or they allow one of their most dependable performers to leave on a free, necessitating a replacement in what is already shaping up to be an expensive recruitment drive this summer.
United have got into a dangerous habit of allowing the contracts of key players to run down, weakening the club’s negotiating position and playing a strange game of contractual chicken, almost daring their brightest stars to find a better deal elsewhere. Were a director of football-type in place at the club, surely Herrera would have been re-signed for more reasonable terms two years ago, long before any PSG interest had arisen.
If Herrera showed against Chelsea what United have lacked in their recent run of dire from, and what they will likely miss beyond this season. He is the necessary rough in their midfield diamond.
Ryan Baldi at Old Trafford