PLAYER ANALYSIS: Ander Herrera and Improving PSG

With Paris crashing out of Europe in the round of 16 for a third time in a row, questions are going to be asked. What makes this different to the previous eliminations is who they lost to. While losing to Barcelona thanks to controversial refereeing decisions, followed by a defeat to the eventual champions Real Madrid the following year are all understandable, losing to a weakened Manchester United side has no excuse. While Tuchel was unable to choose Neymar, Cavani or Rabiot, his team was still strong enough to progress past a Manchester United side which were injury struck. Manchester United were the first team in the history of the Champions League to overcome a two goal defeat in the home leg to progress to the second round. It’s an embarrassing fact for PSG to face. I’ve already criticised the Ligue 1 champions plenty of times, and for good reason, but it seems this summer they are eager to fix these problems. While their full back areas are in desperate need of surgery, their midfield is in need of depth. With Manchester United failing to secure contracts with key players, it’s given Paris the chance to steal one of their key midfielders in Ander Herrera. Let’s look to see how he can improve PSG.

Herrera has had a very up and down time in Manchester. Primarily used as a squad player under Van Gaal, he did have a solid impact in his two years under the Dutchman. In his first season, he managed to contribute to 10 goals in 17 games, a solid output from a central midfielder. In a midfield consisting of an ageing Michael Carrick and an immobile Fellaini, he added energy and some needed bite to the midfield. While his game time didn’t improve in Van Gaal’s final season, it was the arrival of Jose Mourinho that truly brought the best out of the Spaniard. With Mourinho desperately searching for a player to partner Paul Pogba, Herrera was by far the best. His work rate and reading of the game was unrivalled in the squad, and gave the perfect balance to his french midfield partner. Their partnership brought the best out of each other, with Herrera’s huge 5.3 tackles and interceptions protecting a fragile defence. Herrera is one of the few players in the Premier League who understands how to take advantage of the rules of the game. It’s a common consensus that every Premier League fan hates Herrera, except United fans. He knows the dark arts of the game, like you see from the Catenaccio sides from the sixties. He will take a yellow card for the team, if it helps stop an opposition attack. He will always stay on the ground for longer than needed, and harass referees to help get the decision to go his way. While many authentic football fans do not like this side of the game, winning teams are built with players like Herrera. A combination of huge defensive work and adding that extra bite to midfield is perfect when you want to hold onto a lead near the end of the game, and to help disrupt more possession based sides. PSG’s midfield has missed that energy and aggression since the departure of Blaise Matuidi.

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So what are the issues with the Spaniard? He doesn’t offer enough in the attacking front. It’s strange to see a player who blossomed as an attacking midfielder under Marcelo Bielsa to have a lack of attacking output. Herrera’s drop off in the final third is massive from his final season for Bilbao. His key passes, shots per game and dribbles have all halved since then. While this could be down to a change in role, which is true. He isn’t relied on in an attacking sense anymore, thanks to the dominance of Paul Pogba, but the problem comes when he has to be relied. When Pogba suffered a short term injury during Mourinho’s second season, Herrera replaced him in a 4-2-3-1, playing alongside Matic. The Serbian couldn’t offer anything on the attacking front, and it was up Herrera to bring something to the midfield. United truly struggled during this period, with a stale draw at Anfield, a loss to Chelsea and an embarrassing lost to Huddersfield. Pogba was huge blow and Herrera just couldn’t add the same flair and arrogance as his teammate. It wasn’t a surprise as soon as Pogba came back, United beat a gritty Newcastle side 4-1.

So what would Herrera add to this side? As mentioned they are lacking in midfield depth. They have been forced to play Dani Alves and Marquinhos in that position because they are truly lacking options. Herrera would add a physical and defensive presence to a midfield that has looked shaky at times. It’s a team full of superstars, but having a player who isn’t afraid of doing the hard yards is always needed to succeed. As the famous Zidane quote goes when Makalele was sold to Chelsea. “Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley when you are losing the entire engine?”

PLAYER ANALYSIS: Juan Mata and the Slow Decline of Number 10’s

Not so long ago, the number 10 was seen as one of the most valuable and sought after positions in world football. They were seen as the creative hubs of the side in charge of chance creation, but like many elements of football, it was just a trend. Thanks to managers either preferring the side to be more defensibly solid from every area of the pitch, it meant the once favoured attacking midfielder was replaced. Many players who were born to play as a number 10 had to adapt or be left behind, and many did so. Marek Hamsik turned into a goalscoring number 8 for Sarri, Dries Mertens turned into one of the best poachers in Serie A, and Di Maria already turned into a very good winger. While these are some of many players who succeeded in transitioning into another position, there are still some players who aren’t having a similar success. Oscar left Chelsea thanks to not being able to have a role in Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 system, Mesut Ozil seems to not be wanted at Emery’s Arsenal and James Rodriguez looks to be struggling for Bayern, even with his good performances. It’s a shame that these players are struggling, but it’s just how football works. It’s a sport that goes through trends and right now it’s a position that isn’t favoured.

The player who we’ll be talking about, regarding this decline in the desire for an attacking midfielder is Juan Mata. He arrived in England in 2011, when he was signed by Chelsea for £26m from Valencia, and was truly loved at Stamford Bridge. He won the player of the season twice in both of his full campaigns, and truly lit up the league. His departure from Chelsea is still seen as rather baffling. Mourinho let him go because he didn’t think he did enough defensively to start over Oscar. After their relationship soured, he joined Manchester United for £37m. While many do not like Mourinho, me included, he was right on this. It became even more apparent when Louis Van Gaal joined the club in the summer of 2014. He originally found game time difficult, with record signing Di Maria slotting right in at the beginning of the season, however he did eventually find a space on the right side of a 4-1-4-1. While his numbers were never spectacular, he still contributed under Van Gaal with some important goals and kept the side moving the ball in the final third. He played in every Premier League game in the Dutchman’s final season, and his numbers showed this to an extent. He completed 47 passes a game, the second highest in his United career, was taking 1.5 shots and rarely was getting dispossessed. His chance creation was low at 1.4 but that’s more of a problem with Van Gaal’s incredibly pragmatic system. The problems that Mata was suffering from during his time at United were struggling to fit his skill set in a side that didn’t have the space for it. Players like Jesse Lingard and Henrik Mkhitaryan offered more off the ball and were quicker. Mata couldn’t play in the middle because he didn’t have enough defensively to play as a number 8 in a 4-3-3, and couldn’t play outwide because he didn’t have the pace and dribbing. While Mourinho did use him more than any expected him to, the issues didn’t get better as he aged. His disadvantages have became even more apparent under Solsjkaer. The former United striker wanted to impliment a pressing style in the side. While this did bring the best out of the likes of Rashford, Lingard and Herrera, Mata is a play who has not had the same boost. Mata just doesn’t have the same speed and energy as Lingard, and whenever he replaced his teammate, it just showed how out of his depth Mata seems to be in this sort of system. Mata is and always will be one of the most technically gifted footballers United have seen in the last 10 years. His reading of the game, combined with his ability at finding space in the final third make him a useful player, but not in the team that United aspire to be.

It’s discussions like this that make football sound harsher than it can be; adapt or be left behind. While this usually happens with managers, Mata highlights just how prominent it can be with players. This isn’t to say that number 10’s are prehistoric, but at this moment they are just out of trend. It means players, like Mata just have to try and find a way to continue to perform at the top level. Many players have figured this out, but unfortunately some can’t, and must wish they were born earlier, so they could truly have the great career they deserve.