BY ANDREW BOULTON
As a youth, I used to play in centre midfield alongside a boy we affectionately nicknamed ‘Nosebleed’. Incidentally, it was one of our more accurate nicknames, particularly compared to, say, ‘Timmy 6 Fingers’ or ‘Dead Stephen’.
The moniker was born from the regularity with which his erratic capillaries would burst into a crimson gallop down his nostrils. Contact with an on-field object invariably did the job, whether it was the ball, a stray elbow, an inexplicably disembodied boot or, when we were playing the rougher teams, an empty can of strong lager. Combine that with my own fondness for high-risk, badly-executed back heels and we were a less than formidable partnership.
It is perhaps this experience that gives me a sympathetic view of one of the Premier League’s least enjoyed central midfields. Daley Blind and Ander Herrera have only played a handful of games alongside each other for Manchester United, partly due to injury, partly due to Louis Van Gaal looking at Herrera as if he’s just been sick into a hamper of particular fine gouda
Of course, based on this season’s performances it would be difficult for a pairing of Bryan Robson and Batman to make much of an impression. In their bid to be reinvented as a patient and philosophical team, United have been branded, not inaccurately, as long ballers. And yet, in the recent games the two 25 year olds have started together, there has been glimpses that this a partnership with as much balance as it has ability.
Blind’s excellent adjustment to Premier League life has largely been overshadowed by Radamel Falcao tip-toeing through his Manchester United career as if he’s navigating a game of popular 80s ITV children’s adventure game ‘Knightmare’. But, for the £13.8 million he cost, Blind brings a hugely impressive blend of energy, thoughtful defensive work and the kind of stability you could build a full-size Ikea on.
Herrera’s time at United has been less certain – no Swedish furniture and meatball outlets could have been erected on his start to the season. But after a sometimes baffling exile from the team, Herrera has been given the chance to show what £25 million worth of midfielder could look like. So impressive has he been on returning to the side, he was overwhelmingly voted the fans’ player of the month for February. That Chris Smalling also made the top three perhaps does my argument no favours.
And yet, dip your toe into the frothing waters of Twitter and one in three comments about the pair suggests quite forcibly they are not the midfield Manchester United deserves. Comparison, it seems, is the enemy of reality, especially for Manchester United fans who spend more time thinking of the midfielders that won them their earliest Premier League titles than the ones that won them their last.
And though no one is suggesting we are looking at the new Keane and Ince, it’s hard to argue that this is a significant upgrade from seasons in which Anderson and Tom Cleverly did anything more than just look after Lucozade bottles.
Comparison with history does nothing positive for Blind and Herrera. Nor I suppose do comparisons with the ready-made ‘galactico’ central midfield solutions (Pogba, Vidal, Strootman etc.) Manchester United are said to be ready to hurl pockets full of change at in the summer.
But comparisons closer to home just might be more reassuring. Across town, two Brazilian gentlemen with similar names are becoming the focal point for a club chasing billionaire ambitions with too many mid-price acquisitions. Fernando and Fernandinho, though both individually effective, lack the bounce and balance of their Red rivals. And if ever there was evidence against deploying two ‘wreckers’ to supplement Yaya Toure’s paper-thin work ethic, it’s the dynamic, box-to-box togetherness of Blind and Herrera.
Blind and Herrera, in theory, have all it takes to be an outstanding midfield pairing at the highest levels of the Premier League. Blind in particular is still oddly thought of as Louis Van Gaal’s ‘handyman’, when in fact he was last season’s Dutch Player of the Season based entirely on his assured and imposing displays as a defensive central midfielder.
Things aren’t perfect for United right now, and with every ball that cannons off Marouane Fellaini’s skull or drifts past an unresponsive Angel Di Maria they look less attractive still. But amongst all that is wrong with this Manchester United it would be churlish and self-defeating not to give a chance to this one bright spot. After all it could be far worse for United. They could be stuck with me and Nosebleed.