The sight of Ander Herrera struggling off the Old Trafford pitch on Saturday was largely overlooked in the aftermath of Wayne Rooney’s dismissal for his crude swipe at Stewart Downing. Indeed, a tweet from the Spaniard afterwards seemed to indicate that he would soon be back to full fitness, so his importance to United was not discussed in any post-match analysis.
Reports on Tuesday however, revealed that the damage is more serious than first expected, and Herrera could be out for up to three weeks with a damaged rib. United’s injury list is longer than Alan Pardew’s face at present, although Michael Carrick, Marouane Fellaini and Phil Jones are not far off a return to the first team.
United have some vital Premier League matches coming up against Everton, West Brom and Chelsea, and will certainly miss Rooney as he watches on from the sidelines. He will definitely sit out all three matches; however the international break gives Herrera an outside chance of being involved when Jose Mourinho’s men on visit Old Trafford on 26th October.
It remains doubtful that Rooney’s leadership will be missed in the same way that Vincent Kompany, Steven Gerrard or John Terry’s would be for their respective clubs, though Rooney is still finding his feet in his role as United’s leader.
Despite the excessive media coverage the England man is currently receiving, Herrera will be missed just as much, if not more than United’s captain.
Rooney has recently been deployed in the number ten position behind Radamel Falcao and Robin Van Persie which will now (presumably) be filled by Juan Mata or, after his electrifying performances in United’s reserves recently, Adnan Januzaj. Mata’s link up play with Herrera has been impressive, particularly in pre-season, and this interplay would have cushioned the blow of losing Rooney to suspension.
Herrera has been a key component of United’s midfield this year, but doesn’t appear to have the ready made replacement that Rooney does; certainly none that can provide his craft and guile in the middle of the park. This causes far more of a headache for Van Gaal when selecting his team formation for Sunday’s difficult match against Everton.
Michael Carrick may fill Herrera’s position on the right of a midfield four, but would operate more comfortably at the base of Van Gaal’s diamond, a position currently occupied by Daley Blind. Of course, this all depends on Carrick’s fitness. Darren Fletcher, United’s vice-captain could also step in to take the place of Herrera but, as with Carrick, it certainly wouldn’t be a ‘like-for-like’ replacement.
If Van Gaal had a full array of defensive options available to him, then it would be no surprise to see him switch back to the 3-4-1-2 formation that he trialled at the beginning of the season. The United boss could then choose from Blind, Fletcher, Di Maria and possibly Carrick or Fellaini (remember him?) to fill the two central midfield positions.
Luke Shaw and Rafael, who impressed against West Ham, would fill the wing-back positions, but it’s the central defenders that may be problematic. If Phil Jones doesn’t recover in time to face The Toffees, it would leave only Marcos Rojo as an ‘established’ option. Tyler Blackett will return from suspension, but Van Gaal would have to opt for Tom Thorpe or Paddy McNair. Playing three defenders still adapting to life in the Premier League might not be the best solution, especially against a talented Everton attack.
Van Gaal could always plump for a 4-3-3 formation, a favourite of his at previous clubs of course, but this then leaves the conundrum of how to successfully shoehorn in the wealth of attacking talent that United currently possess.
The frustration for United fans is that the 4-4-2 ‘diamond’ formation was just starting to show glimpses of attacking fluidity not seen at Old Trafford for some time. Whatever formation ‘King Louis’ decides on, he will certainly miss Herrera on an individual level.
Herrera has made four starts in the Premier League, missing matches against Sunderland and Burnley. In this time, he has made 226 passes at an impressive success ratio of 89% compared to Rooney’s 84%.
Although not known for his goalscoring prowess in La Liga, Herrera has scored twice already this season. The Spaniard has also created five goalscoring opportunities for his United teammates, one of which was converted by Rooney against QPR on September 14th.
Defensively too he’s been an asset, making nine tackles and six interceptions.
Despite the emphasis on United’s defensive woes, Herrera has kept the midfield ticking. If it wasn’t for their spectacular capitulation against Leicester recently, United would be placed fourth in the Premier League, level on points with Manchester City and one point ahead of Arsenal.
Van Gaal urgently needs his squad to gel though, and create the consistency to mount a serious assault on the top four positions. The results of the three matches without Rooney, and possibly Herrera, will of course have some impact at the end of the season.
More importantly, Herrera has become so crucial to United that if the little Spaniard stays injury free and maintains his early season promise, it won’t just be fourth place in the Premier League that United are fighting for next season.