‘I am ready to follow him everywhere,’ Ander Herrera said to Jose Mourinho before Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Chelsea in 2017 – detailing his plan to stop Eden Hazard. ‘If he wants to go to the bathroom, I will go with him.’
The Spaniard is fondly remembered for his relentless man-marking of the talented Belgian three years ago, and it summed up who he is as a player – and why United fans still speak so highly of the midfielder to this day.
Tenacious in the tackle, technically sound and willing to leave nothing on the pitch come the final whistle – he is a manager’s dream. It’s puzzling, then, why he didn’t stay at Old Trafford for longer.
Ander Herrera’s man-marking masterclass against Eden Hazard summed him up as a footballer
He gave everything for Manchester United and struck up an affinity with the supporters
Herrera joined PSG on a free transfer last summer, but it wasn’t – according to the man himself – a decision he took lightly.
‘My intention was not to leave the club and I was happy there – as happy as I am now here,’ he told the Telegraph in October.
‘It was not a secret: I was negotiating for more than one year, but I expected more from the board after my third season at the club when I was player of the year.
‘They didn’t come to me that summer, they didn’t even call me. And that was very painful for me, because I had a feeling that I was giving everything.
He was forced to leave Old Trafford because he didn’t feel the same affection from the board
He has found his feet after joining PSG on a free transfer and has added steel to the midfield
‘I want to make sure everyone understands there is nothing personal at all. That’s life. But it’s true – after the third season when I was player of the year, when I had the respect and the love from the fans, I didn’t feel that love from the club.’
Herrera plays the game with so much energy – without wanting to pull out a cliche, it does feel like he’s a schoolboy on the playground at times. His dogged determination did not go unnoticed with the United faithful, who have often reminisced on his passionate displays – something Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s is desperately crying out for in his current team.
The Norwegian might be able to call upon Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes and Nemanja Matic, but none of them quite does the same job as Herrera. In a season where United seem to be coasting through games and sneaking wins by the skin of their teeth, a midfield go-getter really would make all the difference.
Reflecting on his famed display against Hazard, the former Bilbao star outlined his hunger for victory.
It seems strange that United let him go as he is exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (L) needs
‘Jose and I both knew Hazard was the best player, by far, in the Premier League at the time, so if we wanted to win that game, we needed him not to touch the ball, or at least as little as possible,’ he told The Athletic.
‘The most important thing in football is that my team wins, because then I go to sleep happy. It does not matter what you have to do, as long as you respect the rules and don’t do anything illegal.
After 189 outings in the red shirt and a player of the year award in 2016-17, with three winners medals in his collection – starting the League Cup and Europea League triumphs – he can look back on his time in Manchester with fondness. It’s just unfortunate that the end was tinged with bitterness.
Whether it was an issue with money or age, United’s loss was PSG’s gain as they snapped him up on a five-year deal worth more than £300,000 a week in the summer of 2019.
Herrera left nothing on the pitch in Manchester and helped the club scoop up three trophies
‘I promise three things: work, professionalism and passion,’ he said after signing his contract, and has come good on all three of those. In return, Herrera is now starting to feel the love he craved.
Just like his gut-bursting performance against Chelsea three years ago, he showed PSG what he offers to a team after fully emptying his tank in their 3-0 win over Rennes last month. His manager’s words to describe his efforts seemed strange and alarming, but they were a true indication of his value to PSG and the message was clear.
‘Ander was dead before the match,’ said Thomas Tuchel. ‘He died in the dressing room tonight. What he did was exceptional. We played a really good Rennes teams but we showed a good mentality and a collective effort. It was a great win.’
So PSG inherited the same devoted Herrera, but that also meant they inherited the same injury-prone Herrera. His first season in France was beset with fitness issues, with foot and leg problems forcing him to miss a total of 21 games.
He promised ‘work and passion’ after moving to France and has been a man of his word
PSG boss Thomas Tuchel has fallen in love with him after claiming he ‘died in the dressing room following a gut-busting performance against Rennes
He has had to overcome injury issues but has played his part and helped PSG reach the Champions League final last year
It’s to his credit that he still managed to feature in 22 matches, and started in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, helping to keep things tight even if he couldn’t prevent the Germans running away 1-0 winners.
Restricted to just eight games in Ligue 1, he played his part as he helped the team win the title – although he conceded that he struggled to celebrate the trophy without the presence of fans. He said it was ‘sad’ to earn his first league crown in such a way.
‘In Manchester, we had the opportunity to win trophies but not the Premier League,’ he said. ‘So I was looking forward to it. It’s a little sad to win my first title of a champion like that.’
Aside from a positive coronavirus test, Herrera looks to have put his injury woes behind him this season and has already played more times in the league than he did for the entirety of the last campaign. With nine starts in 13 games, he has the backing of Tuchel and feels important once again.
Herrera will have regrets over how his time at United ended and said he would always be a fan
Most crucially, he feels content – but he will always be left with a feeling of ‘what if’ having struck up such an affinity with Manchester United and their fans. In his farewell message to them, he said their support was the reason he worked so hard for the team.
‘I cannot lie – I wasn’t born a Manchester United fan, but I want everyone to know that a part of my heart will always be a Red Devil,’ he said.
‘Overall I will never forget the way I have been treated by the fans. When I have been playing, they have always shown me that I was important to them.
‘I have said a lot of times you have to give everything when you represent this club, and you try to put all your effort in. When you do that the fans will love you and I have felt that.’