The emphatic result against Tottenham Hotspur in the weekend has helped learn many things about Manchester United. Starting from the fact that they are not dead and are up for the daunting challenge in the fixture list to the immediate improvement in players performance when they were put in their favourite positions (like Rooney and Fellaini).
However, the biggest one we learned from the match was that United have finally found their best midfield pairing in the form of Ander Herrera and Michael Carrick. Since the start of the season, United have found it difficult to really click either as an attacking unit nor were able to manage a proper defensive organisation in matches.
Neither it was fully attackers fault for not testing opposition goal or was their defenders fault for conceding silly goals, it was their midfield, which let them down. During latter part of Sir Alex Ferguson years, many criticised of him for not signing a proper midfielder. Fergie’s reluctance was largely due to the fact that even though United never had a World Class midfielder in their ranks, they still had the players who were able to put the shift in both attack and defence.
Hence, he never bought either a holding midfielder like Nigel de Jong, Mark van Bommel or an out-an-out attacker like Juan Mata or Mesut Ozil. Instead he had midfielders like Fletcher, Carrick and Cleverly in his squad, who could do both for their team. But, since his departure, United have gone the opposite way and bough players like Juan Mata and Maroune Fellaini, (who are known for their attacking abilities) or Daley Blind (a deep lying midfielder).
As a result Van Gaal had been struggling to fit them all in the squad to produce the right balance. Hence, we have also seen Rooney play in midfield to provide this balance. It is not just his formation, but his midfield pairing has played a crucial role in those performances. For most of the season, he has played Blind in midfield. But, Blind does not make enough forward passes, hence he needed a player with more adventure along with him.
If Herrera had played with him, the Spaniard will move forward at every opportunity thereby will leave Blind exposed in the back. Despite his defensive abilities, Blind is still a light weight in the Reds squad. Hence, opposition attackers found it easy to go past him. So to provide better defensive organisation, Hererra has been the one to make way.
Even when Carrick had been available from injury, the English midfielder was asked to hold the fort on his own as the likes of Mata, Rooney or Fellaini who played along with him in midfield (during November and December) ventured forward leaving him alone at back. So what Carrick needs is someone who can sit with him and at the same time can go forward to support the attack.
Blind cannot do that and starting him along with Carrick will have two defensive minded players in the same squad, as a result it will deprive the teams attacking empower. So it was Herrera who Carrick need along with him. What Herrera can offer which Blind cannot provide is the will to support the attackers. However, it does not mean he makes more forward passes. According to Squawka, Herrera has made forward passes 37.6 times every 90 minutes to Blind’s 45.4.
But, the stat does not say the full story. Herrera relies to a large extent on running forward with the ball at his feet, so when the opposition come at him, he quickly distributes the ball sideways to his attackers. From there the attackers will have the space to create a chance for their teammate or have a shot. Blind does not has the same dribbling attributes which Herrera does.
It does not mean Herrera will forget his defensive duties. In certain ways he is more physical than Carrick. The English midfielder often relies on intercepting the opponent play rather than making nasty tackles in winning the ball. However, Herrera is more of a latter type of person who is not afraid in going into tackles. Even if Herrera is caught forward in counter attacks, Carrick is more clever in reading the situation than Blind does.
Also having Herrera will suit Carrick for different reasons. Carrick is one of the best players in terms of turning a defence into attack quickly. With Herrera always willing to make the forward runs, Carrick can make those forward passes to the Spaniard. From there Herrera will dictate the attack and Carrick can just sit back and concentrate on defending
It took a while for Van Gaal to come up with this pairing, but finally he has reached there and the rewards was clear in their performance against Spurs. Even though Carrick stole the headlines with a goal and assist, Herrera on the other hand produced a Carrick-esque performance by doing the dirty work like an unsung hero. For United to have a good finish to the season, it is essential that Carrick and Herrera start more matches in the midfield in the final run-ins.
Image Courtesy: Guardian and Squawka