"Maybe that's a coincidence but I don't believe in coincidence."
In last week's much-quoted detail on preparation ahead of Everton away, Louis van Gaal was speaking about Arsenal's and United's respective starts in their recent game. It was a cute quote nestled in his original soundbite, but it was very much Van Gaal. With
any luck due consideration, Van Gaal might apply similar logic to his personnel and begin to build his team around Ander Herrera.
The manager's aversion to starting Herrera - United's best outfield player last season - has been unwavering. Last season it took until spring for Van Gaal to give Herrera a run, which immediately coincided with United's best period of the season. Herrera's performance against Everton was difficult to ignore, with his stats backing up his obvious contribution to balancing the side. When asked about stand-out individual performances, Van Gaal obliged: "Ander Herrera. He played well and made a big contribution to our goals."
Rewind to preseason. Van Gaal seemed set on playing 4-3-3, a formation that suits Herrera. Something changed and Van Gaal switched to 4-2-3-1. Not a huge difference, and Herrera played with aplomb in the hole for Athletic Bilbao, but his drive and promptness is squandered further forward. Perhaps Van Gaal designed the change to accommodate two of Schneiderlin, Carrick and Schweinsteiger, or to accommodate the burgeoning Mata or the dwindling Rooney. Or perhaps Van Gaal thinks of Herrera as someone his daughter has brought home. He seems a lovely boy, Louis, and we're all rooting for the hero in this adventure.
Keen to impress after so long left in the cold, Herrera shows an eagerness that often overspills. His early exchanges are sometimes erratic, as seen in his first start this season against Club Brugge. However, he eventually settled into the game, imposing his tempo-setting passing and imagination, and replacing desperate haste with more familiar composure. Even after another patchy spell out, he didn't miss a beat at Goodison Park, helping United pin Everton back with intent from the start.
Herrera is one of those players who seems to have more time on the ball than others, and releases it intelligently, assertively, and just as quickly. His creativity, and the rapid link he creates between midfield and the forwards is invaluable to United, to the point where, whether intentional or not, Herrera's presence tends to skew the formation toward 4-3-3. In any case, with the pace and steel of Morgan Schneiderlin protecting and either Bastian Schweinsteiger or Michael Carrick marshalling the midfield further back, there is a welcome balance in the middle.
Van Gaal's experiment with Wayne Rooney behind the striker has failed, meaning Rooney will either play up top or wide left switching with Anthony Martial. Juan Mata has nailed down his expensive floaty position out right leaving Memphis having to impress for a start on the opposite wing. To complete the spine, David de Gea is busy being De Gea, and Phil Jones is unable to put Chris Smalling off his blossoming stride.
Ander Herrera isn't United's best player now, nor may he be in the future - but he is the player who can marry the team together. Add Schweinsteiger's leadership (those poor, poor referees!) and Schneiderlin's surveillance, and United can move the ball quickly and suffocate teams both home and away. But perhaps Van Gaal is already succumbing to Herrera's charms again. After Everton, the manager conceded: "Now they have played very well, so I am not stupid, I won't change too much on Wednesday." With any luck, that'll go for Sunday and beyond too.