Less work for Ander Herrera as Man United evolve into attacking force
Spare a thought for Ander Herrera. While Manchester United galloped to a 4-0 win over West Ham last week, he remained on the bench, watching his teammates have all the fun. It's precisely the kind of game he would have enjoyed -- quick one-touch passing, intelligent movement, and high, unending intensity. In fact, it was the kind of game where he would have set the tempo last season.
Last season, Herrera's workload was remarkable -- it stood favourably alongside that of Chelsea's N'Golo Kante. He tackled, ran and intercepted everywhere. He produced some of the best performances that have recently been seen in a Manchester United shirt, most notably in last season's 2-0 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford and the 0-0 draw against Liverpool at Anfield. He was outstanding in both those matches, man-marking Eden Hazard and scoring the first goal; providing a defensive masterclass in the latter.
For the last 12 months, he has been United's fireman, scurrying around to ensure that every blaze is safely under control. In the 12 months to come, he may spend more of his time rescuing cats from trees.
That's because, last week, we saw a United team who didn't have a fire in sight. That was due in large part to the abject showing from West Ham -- few visitors to Old Trafford this season are likely to be as charitable -- but it also suggested that Herrera might have a reduced role in the team this season. This isn't simply because of the £40 million signing of Nemanja Matic -- though United look instantly more secure and creative following his addition, as Paul Pogba is able to move further forward -- there have been some other key structural changes to the team, too.
The departures of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the arrival of Romelu Lukaku mean that the midfield area is less congested than it was last season. Opposing centre-backs can't remain inactive for long periods, confident that neither Rooney nor Ibrahimovic can outpace them, they must remain in a constant state of alertness due to Lukaku's speed, strength and movement in the final third.
Lukaku's presence alongside Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Marcus Rashford, with Anthony Martial coming off the bench, also means that Juan Mata is now surrounded by the pace that he needs to thrive in a central playmaking role.
And there have been other developments, more subtle but also key.
Given that Lukaku is a proven Premier League goal scorer, Rashford and Martial are able to play with greater freedom, which should enable them to become more decisive finishers -- there was already a hint of this against West Ham.
A more attacking United means that Herrera will have to spend less time fighting for the upper hand in games that drift on, frustratingly goalless, long into the second half. With Neymar's €222m move to Paris Saint-Germain, Pogba can play without the burden of being the world's most expensive player which, contrary to so many of his pronouncements, seemed to weigh significantly on him last season.
Pogba has also become more attentive to his defensive duties -- an example, it must be said, which Herrera set superbly for him for the last 12 months.
All of this means that Herrera has less work to do. Maybe much less. He doesn't need to exhaust himself ceaselessly making challenges, or rushing back to screen his defence unless United are playing an opponent like Real Madrid which won't be an issue 99 percent of the time.
Though Herrera had a magnificent season last year, one of the reasons he was asked to step up so often was that United had deficiencies in so many areas. Now they are far better balanced, and cumulatively much faster in attack, his list of responsibilities is vastly diminished. In short, he may feel like the roadie who turns up for his band's new tour, only to find that they have decided to carry all their own equipment.
Fortunately for Herrera, he is not just a mere roadie, though he may have to stay behind Matic in the pecking-order for longer than he would like. He may well be called upon in the near future when Jose Mourinho wishes to use a three-man midfield -- the games against Liverpool and Manchester City, with their blizzard of attacking talent, stand out in this respect -- but, for the time being, there is no obvious role for him in the starting line-up.
He is not as creative as Pogba, Mata or Mkhitaryan, nor as defensively accomplished as Matic. He is at least a consistent 7.5/10 in every category, but in each of these roles United may now be able to boast an eight.
Of course, Herrera's contribution to United goes beyond numbers -- what he brings to the team, above all, is the same desire for success that first made the club great. And, given the club's crowded schedule this season, he is still likely to play a huge amount of football. But it is a sign of United's return to prominence that Herrera will have to put his feet up a little more than he would like to this season.
Musa Okwonga is one of ESPN FC's Manchester United bloggers. Follow on Twitter: @Okwonga.