Part of the victorious Spain Under-21 side at the 2011 European Under-21 Championships, Ander Herrera – named in the tournament’s team of the year – is one of a number of his generation yet to step into the senior side.
While David De Gea, Cesar Azpilicueta, Javi Martinez, Mikel San Jose, Juan Mata and Thiago Alcantara have graduated to full honours, though not all made the Euro 2016 squad, Herrera is one of the majority still waiting. Other representatives of the 2011 team of the tournament will be in France – De Gea and Thiago, and England trio Chris Smalling, Kyle Walker and Daniel Sturridge among them – Herrera will be watching from afar.
De Gea is the only one of Manchester United’s Spaniards to make Vicente Del Bosque’s squad, with Mata a surprising omission. Herrera was less so. The midfield metronome hasn’t always had the faith of Louis Van Gaal in a trying year at Old Trafford and appears as far from La Roja today as he was when he left Athletic Bilbao for the Premier League in 2014.
Van Gaal was the manager when Herrera was eventually taken to Manchester – a year after a farcical attempt when David Moyes was in the dugout – but even so, doesn’t necessarily fit the Dutchman’s preferred profile for a midfielder. More physical types such as Maroune Fellaini appear to be in favour, and even Michael Carrick, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, while not built like the Belgian, have a little more heft than Herrera.
Herrera ended the Premier League campaign with 27 appearances out of 38, but only 17 of them came from the start. He managed 1,533 minutes in 2015-16, down from the year before, and way down from the 2,572 in his last season at Athletic Bilbao. In 2013-14 Herrera started 31 of his 33 La Liga appearances, and may never be as important to United as he would have been to Los Leones, even though, statistically, United win more games when he’s in the side, and his 84% pass success rate should please possession-obsessed van Gaal.
That lack of regular football has indeed cost Herrera when it comes to the national team, though it must also be noted that Spain’s midfield is the team’s strongest area, and most of Herrera’s rivals can match or better him pass for pass. The legendary Andres Iniesta continues, as does young veteran Cesc Fabregas, while Thiago Alcantara is the heir apparent in the playmaker ranks. Herrera isn’t a Sergio Busquets or Bruno Soriano destroyer, a role that former Athletic teammate San Jose can also fill.
His time may yet come, as he is only 26 and will be in his peak in two years, for World Cup 2018, when there may be vacancies in the side. By then he may have convinced van Gaal – or whoever has the United bench – of his value as a regular in the side, or found a club that appreciates his vastly undervalued talents.