In the centre he stands, arms outstretched beckoning the ball from teammates, head swivelling on its axis as he surveys his opposition, eyes scanning the field as he plots his next move. Give and go, collect and dictate; that’s Ander Herrera’s game. It’s a game based on immaculate technique, sprinkled with cheeky nutmegs and sharp, darting runs. Crowds marvel at his dainty flicks and pirouettes but these are not rolled out simply to entertain. Each deft touch has purpose; to evade yet another cynical lunge, to alter the game’s tempo, to direct play into a new promising avenue. Whether he’s orchestrating the next wave of attack or cajoling an extra ounce of effort from his fellow lions it’s abundantly clear that Ander runs the show.
When a match threatens to start a hurtling descent into chaos – and that’s an increasingly frequent occurrence when Athletic Club are concerned, with a confused game plan replacing the pre-existing frameworks that allowed a wonderful impulsivity – it’s invariably Ander that tries to quell the storm, taking little touches to prompt one-twos here or a rondo there that at least attempt to arrest the rapid turnover of possession. The Basque club are having to face up to life without El Rey León (Fernando Llorente, their Lion King) but Ander has shown he’s more than ready to take on the talismanic mantle.
He displayed some of this authority during the first season back in his hometown, though it sadly ended in frustrating circumstances – a persistent pubic bone injury hampering his movement through games near the season’s end, to such an extent that he was regularly hauled off before the hour mark once he had been wrung dry of what little creative juices he still possessed in that state. Then, he’d simply return to the medical room and start preparing to do it all again next Jornada, clearly in pain but determined to give everything he could muster for the cause.
Predictably, the absence of any real sufficient break from the weekly grind eventually wore Herrera down, with the injury keeping him out of the starting line-up for Athletic’s Copa del Rey final loss to Barcelona. Coming a fortnight after a hugely underwhelming performance in the Europa League final this was a tough pill for both Ander and the squad to swallow. A season in which they had made all of Europe sit up and take notice of their enterprising brand of slick interchanges had fizzled out at the most inopportune moment; their invigorating flame extinguished in an instant by the magnificence of Radamel Falcao.
Perhaps this trying period helped in hardening Ander’s will – perhaps not – but what is clear to regular onlookers is that behind the slight exterior lies a burning desire to win which fuelled immense leadership this campaign. Admittedly, this desire spilled over and clouded judgement at times leading to a couple of early baths that certainly did his side no favours, but these moments were the exception rather than rule. It’s commonly said that one discovers more about an individual in times of strife and that’s certainly been the case with Athletic’s No.21. In a poor season, one where Los Leones fell woefully short of the bar set in the last – certainly in the cups, while the turgid league displays seen last term became even more regular – Ander has been a constant point of reference to which others should aspire.
The Bilbao-born centrocampista is, quite literally, central to Athletic’s game; a fundamental cog without which life would be a lot harder still for the Basques. Infrequent viewers may look at the statistics columns, see his season total of 1 goal and 2 assists in La Liga and wonder what all the fuss is about. But delve deeper and one begins to contemplate why there isn’t more clamour for the artisan crafting inventive strokes on San Mamés’ fine canvas.
Ander completed the season in the league’s top ten for average number of passes per game with his tally of 66 (according to WhoScored.com) bettered only by a sextet of Barça tiki-takaholics and Rayo Vallecano’s Roberto Trashorras, predictably a product of La Masia. The top ten is his home when accurate through balls are concerned, too; his weight of pass reflecting the rest of his game – finely calibrated and majestic in form but with that intrinsic intention to drive the team forward forever apparent. And to top it all off his trickery and sheer willingness to assume responsibility made him the most fouled player in the league bar none.
Ander’s performance when Deportivo La Coruña came to town was typical of his role at the hub of this Athletic side, receiving the ball from all parts of the field before distributing with purpose, preferentially to the adventurous Andoni Iraola and Markel Susaeta on the right flank. He also attempts several through balls into the final third that, though mostly inaccurate on this occasion, show his intent in linking midfield and attack.
His combative side is apparent in his work out of possession; constantly hounding the opposition to rack up the most tackles per game of any Athletic player, with many of them necessary, tactical fouls that aim to halt the progression of yet another fatal counter. In the same match Ander could be seen hurtling around, putting out fires all over the pitch, while his battling qualities and boundless desire saw him bound quite well here with the odds regularly overturned in the aerial duels stakes.
He aptly shares an apellido paterno (paternal surname) with Helenio Herrera, the inventor of catenaccio and revolutionary manager of la grande Inter of the 60s, who would pin motivational notes on the walls of his teams’ dressing rooms bearing such phrases as “He who plays for himself plays for the opposition. He who plays for the team, plays for himself.” You’d be hard pushed to find a more ardent proponent of this dictum than Ander. This is a player who leaves it all out on the pitch. It’s just a shame when the other lions of the pride consistently fail to roar with the same conviction.
That said, there were a few teammates who, at times, helped drag Athletic back away from the relegation mire. Fernando Llorente’s unwillingness to sign a new contract with the Zurigorri further sought to fracture his already tenuous relationship with manager Marcelo Bielsa and the latter clearly saw this as an opportunity to go down a different path, ostracising Fer to such an extent that he did not start in La Liga until the aforementioned Depor game in late November. Nevertheless, Aritz Aduriz, who returned to the club from Valencia in the summer, took full advantage, registering 14 goals in the league while displaying intelligent movement, link-up play and a terrifically potent heading ability.
Praise must also go to the 19 year old Aymeric Laporte who started the season playing in Segunda B for Bilbao Athletic (the Reserve team) as well as the NextGen Series but quickly became a part of El Loco’s plans, taking the No.4 shirt shortly after his debut. The tall Agen youngster, who moved to Athletic’s cantera in Lezama at 16, was able to pounce when a string of errors, contractual disputes and the inevitable suspension hit the impetuous Fernando Amorebieta. It’s a testament to the imposing teenager that the Venezuelan’s ball-playing ability wasn’t missed as Laporte’s ease on the ball and growing confidence translated to more adventurous driven diagonals out to the flanks as each game passed.
The most pleasing aspect of Aymeric’s introduction, however, was in his dedication to his primary duty: defending. He brings a more composed and reserved style to Athletic’s backline, playing at centre-half in both a back four and a defensive triumvirate in addition to showing his versatility with a couple of stints at left-back. His ability on the turn is improving and though his inexperience brought a couple of dismissals before his season was abruptly cut short by a torn meniscus, fans can be genuinely excited at the prospect of his further growth at the heart of the defence.
Ibai Gómez, too, should be commended for outshining the more vaunted Iker Muniain. Ibai’s mix of alacrity, threatening set-piece delivery and smattering of spectacular goals, including a terrific volley against the enemy from San Sebastián, provided rare elation for the San Mamés faithful who largely endured rather than enjoyed their last season at their beloved Catedral. Bart will be back though – his talent is surely too abundant for him not to return next time with the familiar vigour of old – but this campaign should serve as a warning to not solely rely on innate ability.
Both the physical and, more significantly perhaps, mental hangover acquired from last year’s marathon rollercoaster were too often visible throughout the squad, but in none more so than the precocious Muniain. Legs that previously whirred into a blur were slowed; an increasingly heavy weight of expectation, in addition to the sheer volume of miles clocked, hindering the asphyxiating pressing that was the hallmark of his and Athletic’s rise to the brink of success last term. The enterprising movement synonymous with a Bielsa side became stale while intelligent interplay was replaced by crude and lazy tactics. Passes that were once short, crisp and accurate became progressively longer, delayed and misplaced.
Bielsa is a famously stubborn coach; unmoved from his purist ideology no matter what. His stance is admirable, but the argument proffered throughout his career – that such an inherently inflexible mindset is flawed – is valid once again. Let’s be clear, “inflexible” here certainly doesn’t refer to his attitude regarding team shape. He’s quick to maintain the numerical advantage his centre-backs possess over the strikers they come up against, regularly employing a “number of strikers + 1” rule and in his time at the club he used a variety of formations: initially flirting with the idea of utilising his exhilarating 3-3-1-3 before settling predominantly on a fluid 4-2-3-1 but also reverting to 4-3-3 and even 3-4-3 on the odd occasion.
Rather, it is specifically his defensive philosophy, the work of his team when out of possession, that never alters. He’s a fierce advocate of fervent pressing but the synchronised waves now resemble a disjointed rabble. There comes a point when not only results, but performances too, merit at least a slight venture from such quixotic thinking.
It might be wise, for example, to join the rest of Europe in looking in on Germany for inspiration; at Jürgen Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund to be specific. This is another side with pressing at its core leaving numerous opponents dizzied by the black and yellow swarms that buzz around them. Yet tweaks to their Gegenpressing – the concept of recovering possession as soon and as high up the pitch as possible – have enhanced the sting of the beast, at least in Europe’s premier competition. Following BVB’s exit from the Champions League at the group stage last year Klopp came to an interesting conclusion that changed his own previously unwavering judgement:
“I have learned a statistic. Teams that run too much lose, and teams that press reduce their chances of winning the game. Now I know why [the exit] happened. We ran more than our opponents and we pressed them all over, as high as possible.”
It should be noted that the amicable German manager didn’t ditch his beloved pressing altogether; instead employing a half-press with the emphasis now on putting the opposition under sufficient duress as one compact unit, thus conserving energy and minimising the emergence of exploitable holes within the team structure. Now, there’s no guarantee that such a shift in work off-the-ball would do the same trick for Athletic, but there can surely be more method to the madness of El Loco’s current standpoint.
Not that he’ll be around to make those changes. Only this past weekend Josu Urrutia, the Athletic President, announced that the board have decided against renewing the studious tactician’s contract after a turbulent season in which Bielsa fought with them regarding the redevelopment of Lezama, fell out with high-profile figures within the squad and was unable to discover the elusive quality that is consistency. Given these factors the decision was a rather predictable one, so much so that the departing Argentine has championed the case of Bilbao Athletic’s current coach José Ángel Ziganda in recent weeks, detailing how Cuco’s team play “attacking football with good treatment of the ball and dynamism,” while both he and Ander have praised the work of another former player – Ernesto Valverde who so ably reinvigorated Valencia this past season.
Whoever is in charge come Athletic’s first league game in their new home has a huge task on their hands to help the club rediscover the zestful exuberance seen in Bielsa’s first season at the helm. Replacing Llorente’s goals is surely high on the list of priorities; the hope, at least in part, being that Susaeta, Muniain, Ibai and even Óscar De Marcos – whose perpetual verticality constantly gets him into fantastic positions only for composure to escape him at the critical moment – can step up and make a definitive impression on the scoring charts.
This group have already shown that they have the ability to accomplish great things but for too long now the basics have been strewn on the wayside and a consistently high standard of play eluded their grasp. Only the three relegated teams ended up with a goal difference worse than Athletic’s which says it all really – There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in Bilbao and, as manfully as he tries, Ander can’t do it all. It’s time for Los Leones to roar as one again.