Ander Herrera’s responsibility on Sunday was simple and singular: restrict Eden Hazard.
Edging towards the end of the season, Manchester United had eight games left to play – four of which were to come against the leading teams, in Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Arsenal. Their match against table-toppers Chelsea was the first major assignment for Jose Mourinho to deal with.
The Blues seemed to have gotten back into the winning groove after a shock loss at home to Crystal Palace last month. And the league leaders' attacking midfielder Hazard had been instrumental in the win against Manchester City and AFC Bournemouth prior to this fixture.
Mourinho addressed the Belgian’s threat by assigning Herrera to mark him. The Spaniard obeyed the orders, making the United defence-line looking slightly overcrowded since he tracked back to mark his man more often than surging forward on adventurous runs of his own.
But his contribution to the game went much farther than that. In the seventh minute, Herrera controlled a loose ball in his own half, sprinted forward and executed a delightful, defence-splitting through ball to Marcus Rashford. The carefully measured pass went right through Gary Cahill and David Luiz in the Chelsea defence, found Rashford who raced clear and slot home United’s first of the night.
After that, it was back to business for the Spaniard as he cancelled out Hazard’s threat, matching the Belgian’s pace with his own, making as many as four interceptions, and the same number of clearances from the United box to help his team maintain the lead.
Four minutes into the second half, the 27-year-old ventured forward in one of the rare occasions he abandoned his duty of shadowing Hazard. He positioned himself just outside the right edge of the Chelsea box, watching Ashley Young work his way around a wave of defenders. The Englishman got clear and pulled the ball back for the Spaniard, who took a shot at goal.
Luck was with Herrera, as the goal-bound shot got a deflection off Kurt Zouma that deceived goalkeeper Asmir Begovic and ended up nestling in the back of the net.
With Chelsea two goals down, the pressure from the visitors increased at Old Trafford. But United would not yield, particularly when Herrera’s work-rate and efforts had cancelled out Hazard, and effectively had taken the sting out of any Chelsea attack.
Interestingly enough, at the beginning of the season, Mourinho tended to leave the Spaniard on the bench rather than give him a starting role. As the season progressed, Herrera has proved his mettle.
On the night, when Herrera was entrusted with a responsibility of a more destructive nature, he needed two creative touches of the football to decide the result. The first to set up United’s opener, and the second to kill off the match.