Manchester United take on Granada in the Europa League quarter-finals on Thursday, starting with a first-leg tie at Los Carmenes, but it will be Manchester City loanee who will be looking to have the final say.
Yangel Herrera, 23, has been the predominant midfield fulcrum in Granada’s fairytale European run this season, scoring the goals to achieve qualification, before taking that prolific streak into the groups and now the knockouts.
Such has been the Venezuelan’s devastation in the final third that he is currently the Andalusian club’s top scorer in Europe this season with five goals, stretching back to the three he netted in the qualifiers and culminating in his opening goal to help dump Napoli out of the competition.
His form and prowess in the centre of the park have elevated Granada to unprecedented heights, with Nazaries marking their maiden European campaign with an unexpected appearance in the last-eight, becoming the first side since RB Leipzig in 2017/18 to reach the quarter-finals of a major continental competition across their first foray in Europe.
Under Diego Martinez, who enjoyed Europa League success as Unai Emery’s assistant coach at Sevilla in 2014, Granada have transformed from relative La Liga greenhorns — achieving promotion back to the Spanish top-flight in 2019 — to becoming a major player on the European circuit.
Roberto Soldado, contrary to popular opinion in north London, has spearheaded the side with distinction; Maxime Gonalons has provided an experienced and refined metronomic quality; Chelsea loanee Kenedy has produced bursts of Selecao silk; and Herrera has knitted the equation together.
The latter, signed by Man City in 2017 from Caracas-based Atletico Venezuela, has enjoyed an exceptionally fruitful loan spell at Los Carmenes, fecund soil for Premier League loanees, as the likes of Man Utd midfielder Andreas Pereira and ex-Chelsea winger Jeremie Boga would attest to.
Immediately after arriving at the Etihad, Herrera joined sister club New York City in MLS, where his performances elicited esteemed eulogies from then manager and someone who wasn’t a bad midfielder back in the day, Patrick Vieira, Arsenal’s imperious ‘Invincible’.
“He’s a tactically intelligent midfielder who is strong in the tackle and reads the game well,” the Frenchman acknowledged in February 2017.
“Yangel also has a good passing range and spatial awareness, which is crucial for a player in his position.”
His burgeoning qualities during those embryonic stages of his career were illuminated further just a few months later as he starred in the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup, captaining Venezuela to the final against England in Suwon — where a Dominic Calvert-Lewin goal settled the result — and earning the Bronze Ball.
It is believed City will be keeping a close eye on Granada’s progress against their northwest rivals, gauging whether Herrera could make a tangible impact on Guardiola’s squad next season, which could be just what the doctor ordered with Fernandinho’s contract set to expire this summer.
Herrera, a defensive midfielder by trade, has transcended the role as evidenced by his scoring exploits this term, functioning more as a progressive No. 6 or box-to-box midfielder; and in some cases, a high-functioning mezzala, drifting horizontally and attacking the half space, even moonlighting as a winger at times.
Such versatility and ability to take up numerous roles could chime accordingly with the fluid positional blueprint upheld by Guardiola at the Etihad; as an esoteric adherent of Cruyffian principles, the Catalan coach would certainly appreciate what Vieira described as his innate “spatial awareness”.
His goals of course stand out — a further three in La Liga to complement his five in Europe — but his defensive work rate could prove the ultimate elixir if Fernandinho does indeed up sticks this summer; with 1.2 interceptions per 90 minutes in La Liga, he currently outranks Rodri in the Premier League (1.19).
That ability to read the game and win the ball back with relish is key to the midfield role Guardiola would seek in a Fernandinho replacement. Herrera also holds a candle to both Rodri and Fernandinho in the tackles per 90 department, with 2.25 compared to 2.27 and 2.29 respectively, near identical metrics.
Not to mention he has won more tackles than any other Granada player this season across all competitions (65), underpinning his ruthless tenacity.
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But, perhaps the icing on the cake is in the fact that Herrera outranks the entire City squad for fouls per 90 (2.44), which would mesh well with the club’s covert rough-housing, or ‘tactical fouling’ as some have dubbed it, though his dark arts may need refining under Guardiola as he has collected seven bookings this season.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was also quick to identify the threat of Granada, believing the club possess the “X-factor” to punish his side.
“When Molde played them, I got interested because we might meet them. I watched them against Real Madrid and Barcelona – the big games – and I’ve been impressed by everything about them,” the Norwegian said in his pre-match press conference.
“They’ve got some strengths that other teams don’t have; they’ve got an X-factor in many ways that you wouldn’t expect.”