THE INTELLIGENCE: EUROPA LEAGUE FINAL, MAY 2017
Surprisingly, not all professional footballers are completely in love with the world’s favourite sport. Billions of amateurs might tune in religiously to watch, night after night, but for some pros, it’s just a job; one they’ve been working solidly at for most of their lives.
It’s fair to say Ander Herrera is not one of those people. Listen to almost any interview with the man and you can feel his love and fascination for the game searing through. A fan of Real Zaragoza – the team his father played for, and where he too began his career – he describes attending their 2004 Copa del Rey final win over Real Madrid as one of the greatest moments of his life.
That love has also made him a studious thinker about the game. At a coaching seminar last year, Jose Mourinho revealed that, during the 2017 Europa League final win over Ajax, Herrera made the decision to change the team’s plan at set pieces. It had been arranged that Henrikh Mkhitaryan would stand on the edge of the Ajax box for United corners, so that his pace could be used to defend against any quick Ajax counter-attacks. But, recognising that Mkhitaryan had already been booked and could be forced into making a foul to stop a counter, Herrera instructed the Armenian to head into the box into a goalscoring position, minimising the risk the Reds could be reduced to ten men. Herrera then adopted Mkhitaryan’s position at the edge of the box, and watched as the little attacking midfielder flicked home United’s second goal. Mourinho later raved to his fellow coaches about Ander’s foresight and maturity.
It’s the kind of in-game cleverness that fans would barely notice. But for managers, players and coaches, such little details can turn matches, and make or break careers.