The Baby Face From Bilbao
One of the most exciting World Cups in recent memory may be in full flow, but already thoughts are turning back to domestic competition. For many associated with Manchester United, the festival of football in Brazil is merely providing the opportunity to scout potential targets and perform an early assessment of Van Gaal’s credentials; and many will be enthused by what’s on display.
A disappointing season followed a farcical summer 12 months ago, but already optimistic anticipation is beginning to emanate from the corridors of Old Trafford. Seemingly, mistakes have been heeded and lessons have been learned and United’s movements in the market have begun with a bang with a baby-faced boy from Bilbao.
Ander Herrera has joined the club on a 4-year deal with an option for a further year, commanding a fee believed to be in the region of £28million. Born in Bilbao on the 14th August 1989, at 24, the midfielder arrives with what will hopefully prove to be his best years ahead of him.
Herrera spent his formative years with Real Zaragoza before moving back to the town of this birth with Athletic Club Bilbao in 2011, where he enjoyed a largely successful 3 years, illustrated none more so than in United’s humbling defeat at the hands of the Basque outfit in the Europa League in 2012.
A composed, gifted and tenacious midfielder, the Spaniard’s talents have been reflected on the international stage having represented Spain in the Olympics and at every level barring the senior side. He arrives at Old Trafford with a big price tag and under the infamous umbrella of “potential”. Nevertheless, indications that the baby-faced boy will flourish in the Premier League are readily forthcoming.
Despite the boyish looks and slight frame, the midfielder stands at 6 feet tall and has proven himself comfortable with the physical side of the game so prevalent to the Premier League. There is substance to accompany the style and tackling forms a major part of the Spaniard’s game. According to Squawka,
‘Last season he created 53 chances, but also managed to make 75 tackles as well. He completed 52% of his take-ons and won 43% of his aerial duels’.
(Damian Buxton, June 24th 2014)
The 75 tackles won in La Liga over the last campaign constituted more than any member of Spain’s ultimately under-achieving World Cup squad. Add 5 goals and 5 assists to the 53 chances that he created and it is obvious that the midfielder couples a combative nature with creative flair and attacking potency.
Herrera’s natural game is to look for the ball at every opportunity and then to utilise possession effectively either through dribbling with the ball or making sharp, incisive passes. His ability to drive with the ball at his feet is a welcome characteristic painfully lacking from the attributes of the other central midfielders currently at the club (with the exception of Anderson who is surely on his way out). It will add dynamism to United’s play in a midfield that has been lamentably stagnant and one-dimensional of late.
Hesitancy envelopes the use of the term the “complete” midfielder, and Herrera is certainly not of the calibre of other mooted targets such as Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos. But the Spaniard’s all round abilities lend strength to the notion that he has the potential to develop into a midfielder in the very top bracket. A notion supported none more so than by the Bilbao boy’s heritage, attitude, and the environment that he will now find himself in.
Manchester United promote a mantra of youth, industry and improvement. There is an inherent determination to strive to reach the top of the hill, and even though it can never be reached, to keep striving anyway. It is a philosophy that manifests itself in success on the pitch and has unquestionably overseen the development of some truly world-class talents.
It is refreshing, then, to hear some of Herrera’s first words when interviewed by Manchester United’s official television channel (MUTV), in which he expressed that:
‘I can promise to be a good professional… hard work… and achieve our objectives’.
The Spaniard comes across as mature and well-grounded, but most encouraging and endearing of all is his sheer love of football.
Whilst speaking to MUTV, renowned sports writer and “United We Stand” editor, Andy Mitten, recollected how engaging Herrera had been in a previous interview. He explained how the Spaniard had asked about the best and the worst footballers that he had interviewed, with the assertion that Xavi had been the best, and Messi had been the worst. Then, at the conclusion of their interview, Herrera had enthusiastically asked if he was closer to Xavi or Messi. His love and passion for the game was evident.
This passion was highlighted further still by a quote from the midfielder recently posted on Twitter.
‘“Seating has damaged football. Football has got to avoid being turned into the theatre. Fans have got to be able to sing.” Ander Herrera’.
(@AndyMitten, posted June 28th 2014)
It is glaringly apparent that Herrera feeds off the passion from the stands, lives every moment on the pitch and has a genuine enjoyment of the game. A position supported by Spanish football expert, Guillem Balague, who expressed that the Spaniard is ‘totally obsessed with the game’. It is this love that will hopefully propel the Spaniard to greater heights and transform undoubted potential into proven quality.
But what has Herrera had to say about Manchester United? And where is he likely to play?
On joining the club, speaking to MUTV the Spaniard had this to say:
‘Signing for Manchester United is a dream come true. I have played at Old Trafford for Athletic Club in the UEFA Europa League and it was one of the highlights of my career so far. I have joined United to do all I can to help the team reach the club’s objectives. Having arrived on Tuesday I’m excited to now be living in Manchester and I can’t wait for my first game in United’s famous red shirt’.
And when asked about his new manager, Louis Van Gaal, the former Bilbao man said:
‘I think he’s one of the best managers in the world…For me, it’s luck to work with him. I want to learn a lot of things… I can’t wait to play for Van Gaal, with my teammates and for Manchester United’.
Herrera’s excitement at having joined Manchester United is obvious, and it is always refreshing to bring in a player so desperate to play for the club. Add this hunger to his obvious talents, and the Spaniard appears to be a very good fit for the Old Trafford outfit.
Thoughts then turn to where he will play. Interestingly, when speaking about Herrera, Guillem Balague, a man who has seen more of him than most, asserted that:
‘My personal opinion is that he can be best utilised in the No. 10 position with Mata playing wide’.
‘I’m convinced he has to play between the lines, behind the striker and with two wide men on his side to open up spaces and take advantage of his passing. He works hard too, so he can help with the first line of pressure’.
‘I feel sure that within a year, everyone at the club will be saying what a great signing he has been, and I am also convinced that—while he still needs to score a few more goals—his quick feet and his brain will make him a key member of the Spanish national side of the future’.
(Guillem Balague, June 25th 2014)
Despite these strong assertions, however, with the likes of Rooney, Kagawa, Mata and Januzaj all vying for the No.10 role, it is very unlikely that United’s new midfielder will be deployed that high up the pitch. The Spaniard is undoubtedly expected to occupy a slightly deeper role in United’s midfield and has all the attributes to play from box-to-box and to control the tempo of possession.
Further still, Herrera’s dynamism and ability to travel with the ball undoubtedly fits well with Van Gaal’s progressive style and will ensure that the midfield does not simply play in straight lines. He will bring depth, adventure and fluidity to whichever system United’s new manager favours.
Many great midfielders have flourished when moving into a deeper role from the No.10 slot. The likes of Scholes, Modric, Pirlo and Xavi all began their careers higher up the pitch. Whilst the heights of the aforementioned stars would be a tough ask, it is suggested that Herrera has all the attributes to mature into an assertive and controlling midfielder.
Delirium set in as Manchester United followed his capture with the precocious English talent of Luke Shaw just a day later and there is much cause for optimism on the red side of Manchester. Last summer’s debacle warranted wide-spread criticism, but the club’s decisiveness 12 months on is a welcome departure from the painful indecisiveness of “Dithering Dave”. Van Gaal, despite taking charge of Holland at the World Cup, has evidently wasted no time in communicating his intentions and credit is also due to much maligned Chief Executive, Ed Woodward.
Woodward received widespread criticism last summer for failing to complete deals, culminating in the “imposter” fiasco surrounding the club’s pursuit of the man from Bilbao that they have just captured.
In truth, many of the reports at the time were wide of the mark, and whilst both Woodward and Moyes must accept responsibility for the farcical summer transfer window last term, which produced a hangover into a disastrous campaign, the recent deals have certainly moved to dampen the criticism at Woodward’s end.
The signings of Herrera and Shaw definitely seem to demonstrate that lessons have been learned. When interviewed in “United We Stand” in November, Woodward explained that:
‘Yes. I’ve learned about the media… I learned about expectations being raised by leaks… It’s not good for fans to read about us being linked to a top player and then for it not to happen. But it’s an unfortunate reality when you’re linked to 200 players, as were this summer’.
In this regard, whilst speculation surrounding Shaw was rife, it was refreshing that the signing of Herrera materialised swiftly and relatively out of the blue.
When quizzed in November about Herrera specifically, the chief executive moved to quash the line of thought that the Spaniard was simply a target solely of Moyes:
‘We’ve tracked him for nearly three years. He’s got a lot of big pluses. He comes from a footballing family, his father was a top player and a sporting director, he speaks perfect English’.
Regarding the identity of the “imposters”, Woodward added:
‘I’ve got not idea… I can only imagine that people who wanted to insert themselves into the deal turned up at the league’s office’.
(United We Stand, November 2013, pp.22-27)
The much mooted squad overhaul, then, is very much underway, albeit arguably 12 months too late. And with Woodward demonstrating his capabilities, and the experience of Van Gaal at the helm, the cautious apprehension of 12 months ago has made way for excitement and optimism. Patience should still be advised, but in Herrera United have signed a midfielder capable of slotting straight into the first team with the potential to reach the very top of the game.
The last baby-faced assassin to grace the Old Trafford turf wielded an unforgettable impact and many will hope that the baby face from Bilbao will bring equal fortune. With an all-round game and the appetite to improve, there is no reason to suggest otherwise.
Whisper it quietly, but Manchester United may just have signed a very good central midfielder.