Venezuela’s historic run to the final of the U20 World Cup in South Korea captured the hearts around the globe and marked the emergence of a truly exciting generation of talented Vinotinto prospects. They may have been denied the title by England – making history themselves – but these precocious tyros managed to put Venezuela on the footballing map and provide a glimmer of hope in a time of crisis for their fans back home.
The beating heart of this Venezuela side was captain Yangel Herrera, who was awarded the Bronze Ball for his excellent performances throughout. An all-action midfielder, Herrera was the embodiment of everything good about Venezuela; equal parts defensive resoluteness and dynamism going forward. His leadership qualities were shown when he stepped up at vital moments, such as his extra-time winner against Japan and his decisive penalty in the semi-final shoot-out against Uruguay.
Born in the coastal city of La Guaira, around 30km north of the capital Caracas, Herrera started out as a striker but gradually found himself adopt a more defensive roleHeis made his debut on loan at Monagas, helping them to promotion, before returning to his club Atletico Venezuela for the 2016-17 season. Herrera quickly became a regular, making 32 appearances and scoring three goals, and earned a number of call ups to the national team.
However, it was during the Sudamericano earlier in the year that Herrera really announced himself to a wider audience for the first time. Herrera impressed in his seven appearances, scoring twice and excelling as part of the double pivot that protected a near impregnable defence that was to be the foundation of their success.
His performances in Ecuador also convinced Man City to sign him up and the Citizens promptly loaned him to sister club New York City. Herrera has already made a big impact in the short time he has been in MLS and has already displaced Andrea Pirlo from the starting line-up. Not bad from a man who doesn’t turn 20 until the start of next year!
Compared to Arturo Vidal and already touted as a future national team captain, we take a look at just what all the excitement surrounding Herrera is all about…
TACKLING & BALL-WINNING
Combative, tenacious and relentless; just three of the words you would use to describe Herrera’s playing style. The 19-year-old is a fierce competitor in the middle of the park with a real physical presence and is not afraid to snap into challenges. On top of this, he possesses the energy and mobility to cover every blade of grass, putting out fires all over the pitch all day long.
Naturally this ball-winning ability makes him ideal for a defensive midfield role, which is where he primarily operates for Venezuela U20s alongside Ronaldo Lucena. As a midfield duo, they expertly shielded the defensive, squeezing the space between the lines, and effectively helped create and organise the two deep-lying banks of four, as expertly analysed in this article.
Herrera averaged 12.29 defensive duels per game during the U20 World Cup and his athletic physique also means he is able to make good recovery challenges on the rare occasions that he is caught out of position, as the video below shows. By breaking up the play he also allows his teammates to get back into their compact defensive unit.
Another impressive aspect of Herrera’s tackling is his ability to quickly transition from a defensive situation into an attacking one. His upper body strength allows him to bully players off the ball with ease and his composure and timing of tackling means he is in a good position to pass the ball forward after one of these duels.
However, Herrera is versatile enough not to merely operate as a destroyer at the base of midfield. In true box-to-box fashion his energy means he can play further forward in midfield and, thanks to his pressing and tackling, he can win the ball high up the pitch to create dangerous situations in the final third. His assist against Columbus Crew is the perfect example, as seen in the video below, and is the perfect example of his ability to press.
The one negative side of his combative nature is that Herrera does pick up a lot of cards (14 in 32 for Atletico Venezuela) and so this is the element of his game he most needs to work on.
For all Herrera’s excellent tackling ability, it’s not all about charging around crunching into challenges. He is very tactically astute and positionally disciplined and as a result always seems to be in the right place, leading to plenty of interceptions. What’s more, his time spent as a defender helps this reading of the game and anticipation, while he can easily drop back between the centre backs too when called upon.
We’ve focused a lot on the defensive side of Herrera’s game but he is already a very well-rounded footballer who is good with the ball at his feet and can contribute offensively too. In his usual role at the base of the midfield, Herrera is typically charged with recycling possession, which he does calmly and confidently, and he tends to look to play a simple ball to a teammate with better passing ability, such as Lucena.
Due in part to his composure and strength, Herrera is good at retaining possession, even when under pressure, and this allows him to dictate the tempo of the side. He can slow the pace right down to relieve some of the pressure and give his teammates a breather or a chance to get back into position.
However, he does have a more inventive side to his game when given licence. He has good vision and can speed up the rhythm with an incisive forward pass through the opposition lines. At the U20 World Cup he played the second most passes and topped the charts for through balls, key passes and passes in the final third. Admittedly, this is partly due to him playing more games than most but he still ranked in the top three for key passes and through balls per game.
Also, as displayed towards the end of the video, he has the ability to spray long, raking balls forward from deep and his long diagonal from right to left, looking for Penaranda, was a particular feature of the U20 World Cup campaign. His creative passing is far from the finished product but working alongside Pirlo at New York City, he has the perfect master to learn from.
A key strength of Herrera’s game is his aerial ability, both when it comes to the attacking duels and defensive duels. As shown by his extra-time winner against Japan, he is a danger from set pieces and can use all of his six foot frame to win flick ons and second balls high up the pitch. Defensively he is an asset when defending free-kicks and corners and often provides the first line of defence when it comes to dealing with goal kicks and long balls from the opposition. He is a formidable barrier to get past and this aerial ability can immediately switch a defensive situation into an attacking one.
DYNAMISM & SKILL
As a box-to-box midfielder, Herrera is also good at driving forward in the final third and contributing to the attack. He possesses decent shooting from distance and has good pace and timing of runs to make a late surge into the box, although he should aim to contribute more goals in the long term.
Also, for someone who we have hailed primarily for their defensive work, he has a delicate touch and can pull off a piece of skill to go past someone or get himself out of danger, in particular a Cruyff turn, nutmeg or chapeau as the video below shows.
This somewhat deceptive skill and mobility also allows him to win plenty of fouls, such as for the last gasp equaliser against Uruguay in the semi-finals.
Yangel Herrera’s future looks very bright indeed. MLS should provide an excellent stepping stone before he joins up with parent club Manchester City. It might be hard to see him going straight into a starting XI in the Premier League but the example of Gabriel Jesus shows that you will be given the chance if you hit the ground running and adapt quickly.
For the meantime at New York he has the perfect boss in Patrick Vieira to help him develop his all-round midfield game, as well as the likes of Andrea Pirlo and David Villa to gain invaluable experience from. Vieira has already gone on record of how highly he rates him so it seems like a match made in heaven.
Already a full senior international, Herrera will hope to consolidate a place in the Vinotinto squad. Boss Rafael Dudamel has seen his qualities first-hand and will see Herrera as the long term successor to Tomas Rincon. With the exciting generation of Venezuelans emerging, there is a genuine possibility of a first World Cup appearance on the horizon. 2022 may come just too early, so 2026 may be a more realistic bet. Either way, Herrera will almost certainly be a key part of making Venezuelan history yet again.