Catching Up with Yangel Herrera
As the new La Liga season kicks off, Justin Sousa details the impressive progress made by Yangel Herrera since he left MLS for Spain last year.
Yangel Herrera was one of the early trailblazers on the road from Major League Soccer to the Europe's big leagues. The Venezuelan midfielder spent the 2017 and 2018 MLS seasons at NYCFC under the tutelage of Patrick Vieira – an Arsenal and France midfield legend – and Domènec Torrent, a long-time assistant coach of Pep Guardiola, before he made his move to Europe.
He initially arrived back in England to his parent club, Manchester City, but Herrera spent the last year-and-a-half on loan at La Liga sides SD Huesca and Granada. In Spain, the 22-year-old underwent his next evolution from an interesting prospect to a stalwart in the midfield of a team on the verge of qualifying for the Europa League group stages.
Stationed on the left side of Granada’s double-pivot, Herrera continued to be the hardnosed, gritty destroyer most had dubbed him at NYCFC. However, Diego Martínez’s high pressing, transitional style of play and decision to use the Venezuelan as the deepest midfielder unlocked a new level in Herrera’s passing range and offensive presence. As an all-action midfielder, he facilitated Granada’s high press, contested aerial duels and 50/50 challenges in the middle third, and compressed the opposition when they tried to build out from the back.
Although Herrera was dribbled past 1.7 times per 90 minutes last season, his recovery speed and tackling compensated for his tendency to overcommit to pressuring players like this:
Herrera’s 744 total pressures ranked fourth across La Liga last season and averaged 17.34 pressures per 90 minutes in the middle third of the field, as per StatsBomb data available on FBRef. Though he played alongside a revolving door of midfield partners and attacking midfielders, the 22-year-old was constantly relied on to clean up any loose ends behind his more attack-oriented teammates. It's a job that can often test the intelligence of young players as they walk the tightrope between smart, tactical fouls that prevent opposition attacks and irrational, clumsy challenges that lead to unnecessary yellow cards. Herrera’s understanding of the “smart foul” was impeccable for most of the season, as he combined 3.4 fouls with his 3.3 tackles per 90 and saw yellow 14 times in his 30 league appearances.
His consistent pressing also acts as a form of proactive defending. Herrera’s suffocating presence forces teams into turnovers but also puts him into prominent positions to intercept passes and initiate counter-attacks for Granada. The same can be said about his prowess in the air, winning 55.6% of his total aerial duels last season to become an indomitable force for other midfielders to compete for set pieces against.
Martínez experimented with Herrera playing as a more advanced eight in the opening matches of this season, and it’s already proven fruitful with the Venezuelan scoring three goals in three matches. Though the fitness levels of other players may be the primary reason for this run of positional rotation, Herrera’s shown that he can contribute in the final third and lead a more dynamic midfield for Granada.
As an advanced eight or auxiliary ten, Herrera gives team-mates an outlet in and around the edge of the box capable of maneuvering in tight spaces and finishing opportunities.
Granada’s preference to defer possession and play a more direct style of football also saw Herrera average nearly half the number of passes per 90 for Granada last season (34.7) than he did in his last year with NYCFC (62.3). But this system requires efficiency over quantity, and Herrera made 1.4 fewer inaccurate short passes and 0.3 inaccurate long balls per 90 in 2019/20 compared to his 2018 MLS season. He wasn’t going to be the locksmith midfielder that picks teams apart with intricate passes, but his physical strength and quick thinking are instrumental assets for any counter-attacking side.
In this clip, his first touch is not the cleanest, but Herrera still manages to swing the ball across the field where Granada can stretch Alaves’ back line and set up the goal.
The long ball pre-assist became a staple of Herrera’s game last season. Though he doesn’t dictate tempo, Herrera can make the opposition scramble with switches of play like this:
The prospect of Herrera continuing to play in this more advanced eight positions throughout the season will also provide more context as to how good he can be in the attack. It allows him to press the opposition between Granada’s midfield and front line while also providing room for him to carry the ball forward. One of his underrated traits while at NYCFC was his ability to win fouls. If he can win anywhere close to the 2.1 fouls per 90 he managed last season, Granada will have more opportunities to take set-pieces closer to goal in central positions.
There’s been subtle improvements in his interplay, but the contrast in how well he progresses play as a ball-carrier as opposed to passing is still stark. About 44% of his ball carries pushed Granada forward whereas only 30% of his total passes were played forwards. For a side that are going to consistently look to strike on the counter attack, Herrera’s bursts of speed and deceptively agile movement can break even the most aggressive presses.
This assist from last season shows the threat Herrera poses using his positional understanding, speed and direct style of play in a more advanced position:
Herrera’s frame allows him to play with his back to goal and pushing him up the field would make this skill an asset for Granada in transition:
As Granda hold an optin to buy in their latest loan deal for Herrera, it’s unlikely the Venezuelan will return to Manchester City after this season. He’s grown to be a trusted soldier in Martínez’s side, and he seems to prove is value at any position his coach puts him in, regardless of the circumstances. The raw, robust teenager that once covered every blade of grass for NYCFC two years ago has come a long way since then. Both his and Granada’s good run of form won’t go unnoticed by some of the bigger clubs across Europe for too much longer.