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Jun 26, 2014

Man United midfield rebuild begins with Herrera

Ander Herrera to Manchester United. In the words of Radiohead's Thom Yorke as he wailed his way through "Idioteque," "This is really happening, this is really happening."

Manchester United have finally signed a central midfielder of elite quality. Those who can scarcely believe it are possibly gaping at Herrera's official Twitter account, whose avatar bears a picture of him smiling alongside Sir Bobby Charlton in a club shirt, and wondering if it has been hacked.

And well they might. Since the purchase of Michael Carrick from Tottenham Hotspur in the summer of 2006, United have failed to purchase a single midfielder who could be described as an orchestrator of the team. That is partly because Carrick and Paul Scholes spent a great deal of time performing that function very well; but it is also because, for his final three years in charge of the club, Sir Alex Ferguson presided over a baffling period of transfer inactivity in this area.

At times, the neglect of central midfield bordered upon the surreal. Much money was spent on wingers (such as Ashley Young, for 16 million pounds) and forwards (such as the vastly more successful Robin van Persie, for 24 million pounds), goalkeepers (David De Gea, 18 million pounds) and defenders (Phil Jones, a reported 16.5 million pounds).

- Steppe: Van Gaal from laughingstock to national treasure
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Yet during all this time, Ferguson made no investment in the centre of the field. Perhaps he thought that his teams were good enough already, and can point to a record of three UEFA Champions League finals in four years (2008, 2009 and 2011) as compelling evidence for his case. Yet resounding defeats in Europe against teams such as Athletic Bilbao -- from whose squad Herrera has just been prised -- showed up key deficiencies in this area.

Manchester United supporters should be delighted with this acquisition. Herrera is technically gifted, nimble in both feet and thought and has a well-calibrated aggression and menace to his play that his new team has long missed. In terms of playing style, he sits somewhere between Feyenoord's Jordy Clasie and Chelsea's Cesc Fabregas; sitting about as deep as the former, with the ability to push forward and provide assists like the latter.

At only 24 years of age, he is young enough to have significant improvement ahead of him but old enough to have studied for a considerable period under both Marcelo Bielsa and Ernesto Valverde. Most excitingly, he is very much a Louis van Gaal player, a tactically intelligent footballer who may as well have trained in the Dutch school. He is perhaps most comfortable in a midfield three, which is presumably why Roma's Kevin Strootman has also been linked with the club.

For all of Herrera's gifts, and they are considerable, he is only part of the solution to Manchester United's midfield woes. Carrick may indeed be rejuvenated under Van Gaal, but the team needs a more robust presence to contend with their rivals' recent acquisitions of Nemanja Matic (Chelsea, from Benfica) and Fernando (Manchester City, from Porto). There is also the question of whether Van Gaal is happy with his defensive options, although Jonny Evans, an excellent passer, may prove integral to the Dutchman's tactical plans.

There is still much rebuilding to be done at Old Trafford, although this acquisition represents an excellent start. It is also great news for Ed Woodward, as this was a transfer conducted in a timely manner with the minimum of fuss -- a marked departure from the chaos and farce of last summer, and reminiscent of the smooth manner in which matters proceeded under David Gill, Woodward's illustrious predecessor. He was much mocked at the time for his failure to make the deals that the club needed, and so he must receive praise now.

Some will contend that Manchester United paid over the odds for Herrera, who was signed for just shy of 30 million pounds, but there are no complaints now about the slightly larger fee that Manchester City paid Shakhtar Donetsk for Fernandinho, who was integral to their Premier League title triumph.

All in all, then, a great beginning to this summer's transfer business. If this is a sign of things to come, then Old Trafford has a great deal to look forward to.