It wouldn’t be doing Ander Herrera a disservice to suggest that his name wasn’t the first that sprung to mind when considering Louis van Gaal‘s first signing as Manchester United boss but his transfer from Athletic Bilbao on 26 June was a happy surprise, nonetheless.
Not just because it was a very clear indication of the Dutchman beginning to address United’s under-powered midfield but it seemed as if some valuable lessons were being learnt by the club’s hierarchy in the transfer market.
Last summer’s botched attempts to sign the Spaniard were the embarrassing peak of an inept summer for David Moyes and Ed Woodward, with the Scot reportedly pulling the plug on a tricky deal late on in transfer deadline day. It made for frosty relations between United and the Spanish club, and due to the deliberately complex nature of poaching Bilbao’s players because of the club’s strict Basque-only policy, any further attempts to convince the club to sell the midfielder required proper homework, patience and a far more respectful approach.
As it was, having deposited the money with his now former club to activate the clause in his contract, Ander Herrera became a Manchester United player a few weeks ago.
We caught up with Spanish football expert David Cartiledge (@) for his thoughts on Herrera and how he can help transform United.
After United’s efforts to sign Herrera ended so fruitlessly (and somewhat embarrassingly) last year, it came as a huge surprise to see the Herrera deal not only reignited but completed earlier this summer. How did Spain and Bilbao reacted to the news?
The news didn’t come as too much of a shock in Spain/Bilbao. The interest has always been there it was just a case of backing it up. Those in Bilbao are, without exaggerating in the slightest, devastated Ander has gone. It’s very much a family thing there, the whole city loves this one club. That is difficult to find in football.
The mass of reports in the Spanish press a few days before the deal was announced were the first that most United fans heard of the club’s interest this time around. What can you tell us about how the deal was conducted in comparison with last year?
The deal was handled in a completely different manner, with a lot of clarity from the offset. Athletic Bilbao knew where Manchester stood, and vice-versa. The meetings, the phone calls, everything was done in a proper club to club manner. The animosity that exists from Athletic’s side still relates back to last year.
How have United learnt from last season’s mistakes in dealing with Bilbao?
Just to do things more professionally, basically. It was too much cloak and dagger type stuff last time, with Athletic not really knowing what was going on. This time the conversations were better, everything was better.
How important was it to Herrera to make the move once it became clear that United were interested again? Did he take any convincing given that we won’t be playing European football this coming season?
Ander didn’t take any convincing. Privately he always wanted this move and always kept a hope the deal would be done at some stage. The upset from his point was that it might not happen. The European football, the manager, it was all an irrelevancy; Ander wanted to play for Manchester United.
What can you tell us about the difficulties that Basque players face in leaving the club? Javi Martinez didn’t leave for Bayern under the happiest of circumstances…
It’s basically going back to what I mentioned before, the links the people of the city have with the club. It’s part of life there, in a very big way. As much as we talk about Liverpool and Manchester City being smaller clubs in a city, they are still there. There is no one else in Bilbao. Athletic’s market for players is small, so they fight tooth and nail to keep the ones they do possess. With Ander, he grew up in Zaragoza, so things were less difficult pulling him away. Still, he didn’t want to disrespect his club.
Onto Herrera as a player; for those who haven’t seen too much of him during his time at Bilbao, what should they expect to see in the coming season?
A player with a lot of spirit; I think he’ll embody a lot of those fans watching the games each week. He’s a football fan too, as well as player. I think it’s what sets him apart, and why he has such a fine rapport with journalists, other players, and fans. He’s tenacious, aggressive and despite the baby face has a lot of ferociousness in his game. From a technical point of view, he fits in with the typical Spanish stereotype; good on the ball, exquisite touch, ability to read the game, intelligent enough to control a tempo.
United have had well-documented issues in midfield for a number of years. What will Herrera’s presence solve?
He adds direct quality, and understanding of the game. I’ve watched too many United performances dating back to Sir Alex’s last few years at the club when they couldn’t keep the ball, and allowed opponents into the game. Ander’s signing spells control, intelligence and also a vibrancy. He’s not stale, or happy to plod along. His desire is immense.
Papers have linked the club with the likes of Vidal, Schweinsteiger and Kroos this summer; is Herrera of similar quality, in your view?
I believe Ander to be of that quality, most certainly. In La Liga at 18 clubs you are only able to shine to a certain level, even if you are at a fine team like Athletic, or Atleti, or Valencia. A move to the Premier League raises the level of a player, both mentally and physically. Knowing Ander’s mentality, he will grow into a fine player. He’s a good age, and still has a lot to work on but already has quality.
He suffered a stuttering start to the last La Liga campaign, purportedly in part due to the initial deal falling through. How do you think he’ll settle in Manchester and with the club now he’s made the move?
He was heartbroken at the move falling through. Privately those inside the club knew he was and Ernesto Valverde had a difficult time initially dealing with it. Mental acumen is something Ander has, but he’s not a robot. He felt hurt, deceived. It naturally lingered into his game. By the end of the season he was playing his best football ever though, more mature than ever before. This is what you’ll see week in week out, I have no doubt.