Ander Herrera Lives
For a while, Jose Mourinho deemed Ander Herrera superfluous. Nemanja Matic's summer arrival had condemned United's 2016/17 Player of the Year to watch from the bench. The previous year's sizeable influence was ignored. Matic quickly proved he deserved a place in the starting XI.
Herrera started just eight of United's first 32 league games. To be reduced to a squad player following such an impressive season must have grated and confused the midfielder. After all, when the Red Devils faltered during Mourinho's first season in charge, he was a rare consistent performer in the erratic side.
He appeared to be the perfect Mourinho player: combative, relentless, passionate. It is why he endeared himself to the United faithful almost instantly, even during the murky days of Louis van Gaal.
Bigger egos may have demanded inclusion, sulked, and disrupted squad harmony. Instead, a player who adores United diligently waited. Even as exclusion from the Spanish squad during the March internationals all-but confirmed he would miss this year's World Cup after impressing last season, he was patient.
Eventually, he was given a platform to impress against Manchester City. A midfield triumvirate of Paul Pogba, Matic and the tempestuous Basque flourished. Their second half-display showed grit, steel, and flair, overturning the Citizens' 2-0 lead and squashing any premature title-celebrations.
He was then instrumental as United picked themselves from a lethargic defeat to West Brom with a 2-0 win over Bournemouth. A carefully threaded ball to Jesse Lingard triggered the opener. In many ways, that assist is symbolic of a player whose versatility singles him out. He's creative as well as tenacious. Herrera has the finesse to complement his uglier side.
When United defeat Spurs 2-1 at Wembley for an FA Cup final berth, Herrera was in the middle of it. Predictably. United's midfield won the battle in the centre they had so embarrassingly lost on their last visit. Controlling the middle is crucial to any match, let alone when pitted against Moussa Dembele's strength, Eric Dier's composure, and Dele Alli's guile.
Garth Crooks included him in his perpetually mocked team of the week. It's not that Herrera didn't deserve to be there. It's what Crooks said when justifying his inclusion.
"The most irritating player in the league"
Indeed, Herrera is commonly referred to as the archetypal "Shithouse", a term levelled at someone who has an arsenal of dirty tricks at his disposal. Again, though, it is not that Herrera is a dirty player, per say. It is that he draws upon different elements of the game at different times in the game. He understands and reads the game well, moulding himself into whatever best suits the type of match in which he is involved.
If the game is played at a slick pace, Herrera evokes his Iberian futsal heritage. If the game is played at a frenetic pace, Herrera assumes terrier-like tenacity, hunting the ball down with fervour. If the game requires an instigator to disrupt a key opponent, Herrera takes on this charge with all the glee of a cackling seagull who has just stolen your ice-cream. Ask Eden Hazard.
Manchester United have been involved in three finals in 14 months. Herrera has started them all. United has won them all. The Spaniard will start against Chelsa come May 19th. Once more, he will take up the mantle laid down by Mourinho.
Patience is a virtue even though that isn't a word associated with Ander Herrera. He bided his time. Now he has exploited his opportunity. What more can you ask?