Don’t be fooled by the baby face – in Ander Herrera Manchester United have signed a leader on the pitch and a mature man off it.
As comfortable as marauding into the opposition’s box as sitting back and organising the play, he is the versatile midfielder the team have been crying out for ever since Owen Hargreaves’ knees gave way.
The son of midfielder Pedro Maria Herrera, Ander was born in Bilbao but moved to Vigo and then Zaragoza. Like many Spaniards, his first forays into football took place indoors on a basketball court, playing futsal, a game high on technique played all around the world, except in Britain. He didn’t play on grass until he was nine, but admits those years spent playing indoors honed his ability.
As a teenager he joined the academy of Real Zaragoza, where his father worked as director of football. Ander’s eventual breakthrough into the first team inevitably provoked accusations of nepotism, but even before he had made his debut for Zaragoza, he had caught the eye of Athletic Bilbao, who were well aware of his elegibility to play for the Basque club. Herrera’s strengths lie in his willingness to hassle the opposition and press as well as his passing range and footballing intelligence.
He has spent a lot of his career rotating between a deep midfield role and playing as an attacking midfielder. He is happy doing both, although he says his favourite position is neither as a ‘6’ or a ‘10’, but an ‘8’. “The same role as Xavi or Iniesta,” he told Four Four Two.
One aspect of his game Herrera shares with Xavi is an insistence on touching the ball as much as possible, as he told Marca: “I like to have a lot of the ball and when I don’t I get impatient.”
His first coach at Zaragoza, Jose Aurelio Gay, saw Herrera more as a deep-lying midfielder, but barking mad Marcelo Bielsa, his first coach with Athletic following a €10 million move, had other ideas.
“He didn’t want me to be a player who played with the ball at my feet,” said Herrera. “He wanted me to have a change of speed and dictate the pace of the game by varying the play. He’d insult me in every training session until I did this. He’d shout ‘You’ve got to get into the fucking box’.”
It was under Bielsa where Herrera says he played the game of his life. RoM readers might remember it. His performance in Athletic’s masterclass at Old Trafford meant Alex Ferguson put Ji Sung Park on him in the return leg to limit his influence on the game.
It worked to a point, but Athletic still won, laying down a marker on their march to the Europa League final.
Herrera was one of many inconsolable faces when Athletic were beaten 3-0 by Atletico Madrid in Bucharest. His tears spoke of someone who truly cared about his club.
It isn’t the only club he cares about: two years after leaving Zaragoza, Herrera gave an emotional interview after beating his boyhood team with Athletic, denouncing the club’s calamitous leadership.
“The fans are always committed to the team and travel to the games, they don’t deserve this,” he said.
Going to watch Zaragoza every fortnight as a boy gave Herrera a perspective many modern footballers lack. “Seating has done a lot of
damage to football,” he told journalist and United We Stand editor Andy Mitten last year.
“Football has got to avoid being turned into the theatre. Football belongs to the fans.”
In the same interview, Herrera revealed a competitive spirit that will also please United fans.
“Teams used to come out and be booed and whistle, now they come out and line up together. I understand sportsmanship, but you should shake hands after a game, not before.”
Like most players, Herrera has been guilty of the odd unsporting act, diving for a penalty against Getafe last season. It wasn’t given, and afterwards he was man enough to apologise.
His grounded character was one of the reasons why, following United’s infamous failed pursuit of him last September, Athletic’s notoriously particular fans applauded him on his first day back at training, in contrast to their treatment of Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente, other top players who sought greener pastures.
Herrera initially struggled to get back into the team after the debacle, but a short while on the bench only made him stronger. He blossomed under Ernesto Valverde, a calmer figure than Bielsa but no less a tactician. The coach gave Herrera a freer midfield role, with Mikel Rico instead responsible for the forward charges. Five goals and five assists all season may not be statistics fans would expect for £28.8 million, but Herrera was crucial to Athletic finishing fourth in La Liga and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in 16 years.
Ed Woodward going after Herrera again after last year’s madness was akin to calling an ex-fiancé a year after disappearing on the wedding day. It must have been awkward, but Herrera is a special player, and United are a special club. Here’s to a happy union.