Friday 04 July 2014
Following the transfer of Ander Herrera from Athletic Bilbao to Manchester United, premierleague.com spoke to Spanish football reporter Graham Hunter to find out more about the midfielder, whom Hunter calls a "brave, driven and technically gifted" orchestrator who will be keen to play a pivotal role at the centre of Louis van Gaal's midfield.
Premierleague.com: What is Ander Herrera's background?
Graham Hunter: He grew up at Zaragoza where he was given huge responsibility at a young age, much like Fernando Torres was at Atletico Madrid. Zaragoza are a major club in Spain, and should be a winning club, and as they were doing badly at the time there was an apathy that he railed against at a very young age. He was carrying responsibility, fighting tooth and nail to keep them up, driving from central midfield, often playing alongside Gabi, who has gone on to look brilliant at Atletico Madrid. But Ander looked every bit as driven and as much of a leader as Gabi. He went to Athletic Bilbao, which was a big step because his Dad, Pedro, was Basque and had played and been the longest-serving sports director at Zaragoza. It was a big deal, a genuine repatriation and the city was genuinely very excited about it.
PL.com: How did he fare at Athletic Bilbao?
GH: Two things put a major acceleration on his career. First, he got to serve under Marcelo Bielsa, a coach who was demanding excellence from his players and making them train as hard as anybody will ever have. Playing for a man like that at a club where there was a very high level of talent raised his game. He had gone from a struggling situation where he was carrying all the responsibility to being another element in a bigger, well-oiled machine with all the parts were moving nicely together. He came to the attention of British clubs because of Bilbao's UEFA Europa League run [to the 2012 final].
Secondly, just before he was started to flourish under Bielsa at Athletic he became central to the Spain side who won the Under-21 European Championship [in 2011]. He scored against England in the first game and again in the final, and if you look at that squad, it had high-quality players. So the combination of working under Bielsa, around fabulous players like Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente at a time when things were really exciting at Bilbao, and of developing that tournament-winning mentality was a big lesson. It was an enormous hothouse of a few months for Ander.
PL.com: Might he have joined United sooner?
GH: What prevented him from doing so was that under Bielsa he was asked to do too much physically when he had a minor injury. Bielsa's side lost the Spanish Cup final 3-0 and the Europa League final 3-0 because they were dead on their feet. Ander exacerbated a groin injury and after blossoming, winning the Under-21 final with Spain and reaching two finals with Athletic there was a slight slowdown because of a groin problem that wasn't operated upon. It put the brakes on him becoming an automatic choice as Spain's central midfielder.
PL.com: What sort of a player is he?
GH: Last season he played in two different positions in the 4-2-3-1 deployed by coach Ernesto Valverde [as Bilbao finished fourth in the Primera Liga]. Sometimes he played in the middle of the three, up high behind the striker, in a sort of No. 10 position. That seemed to be where Valverde initially preferred him and was asking him to develop and that went OK. But there's no doubt that in that formation Ander prefers playing as one of the two. Of the two organising midfielders in front of the defence, he likes being the guy who drives forward more. He likes having the pitch in front of him, organising, dictating the play, being the pivot through which the ball circulates a lot.
What is exciting is that he has a very bright, challenging mind and will set himself to understanding Louis van Gaal at United. The Dutchman is somebody who always looks for intelligence and technique above almost anything else and Ander has got both. So as long there is no personality clash between the two men this should be a thriving experience for Ander because he doesn't have any of the superstar mentality that Van Gaal doesn't like. He's a well-educated pupil but he'll be a willing one. He's a bright guy, his technical ability is high and under the tuition of Van Gaal I expect to see him flourish. I'm very excited by it and both United and Spain will benefit from Ander being taught by Van Gaal.
PL.com: Where do you envisage seeing Herrera play for Man Utd?
GH: If Van Gaal imposes a 4-3-3 at Man Utd, which on balance is more likely than the 3-5-2 he's been using in this World Cup, Ander will be looking to hold down the middle-of-the-three position. He could play on either side of the pivot, that's within his repertoire, but Ander would prefer to be in the centre of that midfield.
PL.com: What are his best qualities as a player?
GH: The thing I like about him very much is he'll always make himself available. A lot of players pretend to be available but maybe are hiding a bit, but Ander will be on the move and looking to give players a passing option. You need brave players at United and he definitely comes into that category. His range of short and medium passes is good, he'll want to be on the ball a lot, and he'll try and set a tempo in the team. On the other hand, he has a tendency, like Paul Scholes before him, to be a fairly fierce tackler.
PL.com: What is he like off the pitch?
GH: Having spent some time with him, his English is good, he's extremely bright and articulate, has an organised mind and is very hard-working and professional. As his dad was a professional footballer he's been brought up in a football family, so the housekeeping of being a good footballer is second nature to him. He's a dynamic personality, full of energy, full of self-set goals.
PL.com: How quickly do you think he will settle at Old Trafford?
GH: It will help that David De Gea and Juan Mata are there. De Gea was the goalkeeper with Ander when Spain won the U21 championships and Juan was in that squad too. In fact all three played in the final when they beat Switzerland.
PL.com: Do you think he will take to the Barclays Premier League quite quickly?
GH: I think so, but it would be naive not to point out that it's a big change from La Liga in many different ways. Even though he speaks English it's a big culture change. If anybody is expecting him to take the Premier League and United by the scruff of the neck from day one that is unfair to ask of a guy at a club which didn't make European football last season, which is being reshaped and which has got a new manager. But by November/December United fans will be saying, "We absolutely see what the fuss is all about, we absolutely respect his technique, we absolutely respect his will to win and we're excited to have him here".
Graham Hunter (@BumperGraham) is a respected Spanish football reporter and author. His book 'SPAIN: The Inside Story of La Roja's Historic Treble' is available in hardback from Amazon Book Depository Waterstones, ebook Kindle Amazon and Audiobook.