Yangel Herrera: The World Cup star leading NYCFC’s midfield (no, not that one)

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

He's already displaced Pirlo. Now NYCFC's standout loanee has made his mark in South Korea.

“And what comes next will be very big,” read the caption below a photo of Yangel Herrera on Atletico Venezuela’s website when the club confirmed its player would be joining Manchester City. Next, it appears, is precisely now.

The 20-year-old is experiencing a whirlwind spell in his career, first displacing Andrea Pirlo in the New York City FC team and now emerging as the best player at the Under-20 World Cup.

Picked up by City in January 2017, Herrera was farmed out to New York, one of the series of clubs the English side has linked up with. It was expected there he’d learn a thing or two from the likes of Pirlo and land the odd first team outing. There would also be some valuable guidance from Patrick Vieira, a player with whom Herrera shares a few attributes.

It has panned out far better than that for all parties involved. Herrera’s taken no time at all to adapt in MLS, and after initially being touted as an alternative to Pirlo in Vieira’s setup, he has instead become a starter. Herrera is the type of player to carry out the tasks required within the new system, and he has shown an ability to not only retain possession but provide mobility in midfield.

His role has essentially been coming in for Pirlo, and while the Italian is not at the level he was when in Europe, he is still a big figure in New York. That Herrera has ridden in with such confidence and performed is a testament to the character of the player.

An assist against the Columbus Crew before leaving for the U-20 World Cup summed up what Herrera can bring to the team. Despite being situated in a deep-lying midfield role, he found himself on the edge of the opponents penalty area and had the initiative to shut down a nervous Crew backline. He then nipped in and stole possession before laying the ball off to Jack Harrison for the goal. This sort of tenacity and energy is what has been missing for Vieira while with New York.

He’s now having to do without it for a little while longer as Herrera stars in South Korea, but Viera isn’t too downcast about the situation.

“I’m really pleased for him,” Vieira said. “He’s been one of the best players in the tournament but that doesn’t surprise me at all.”

“I just want the tournament to finish as soon as possible so he can come back and help us.”

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Herrera’s performances in South Korea have been particularly eye-catching and only further emphasize his considerable talent. Not only is the La Guaira native packed with physical qualities like ample passing range, touch and skill, but he also has numerous mental strengths. He has been particularly decisive when Venezuela have struggled in games, or needed inspiration from somewhere. He’s not ducked such a challenge, and steps up when the team requires it most.

This is a particularly special generation Venezuela has in its midst. It is so strong, in fact, that Rafael Dudamel, who coaches the senior side, has taken it upon himself to guide this U-20 team. His leader on the field, his captain, is Herrera. And it’s not for the first time.

“He’s a natural leader. That’s why he’s been team captain in every age group, with the U-15’s and U-17’s,” said his coach, who also took him to the 2016 Copa America and has given Herrera his first two senior caps in South American World Cup qualifiers.

Throughout the U-20 championship, Herrera has been an all-action, energetic presence, working as a box-to-box midfielder, covering every blade of grass. One moment he can be tackling and intercepting in front of his defense, cutting out opponent attacks. But he’s not just a simple destroyer-type. He’s extremely adept on the ball, initiates attacks from deep and follows the move through to the frontline. His dribbling and skill have also been noticeable, including one audacious nutmeg move against Mexico.

This sort of versatility is valuable in the modern game, and while he’s operating inside a double-pivot for Venezuela, it by no means suggest he’ll always be there throughout his career. His multitude of attributes mean he could end up featuring further up the field, and with a more attack-minded approach.

If there is one issue or doubt about his game, it’s discipline. Herrera can be a rash with his tackling and arrive too late, thus being forced into over-committing to challenges. However, it’s a minor problem for a player of his age, and it’s likely something Vieira works on.

Next it’s an Under-20 World Cup final for Herrera, and then back to New York to continue his development. There he has a few fans awaiting his return, including two teammates, David Villa and Maxi Moralez, who have been texting him throughout the tournament.

“It’s exciting that they’re following me and my career,” said Herrera. They’re not the only ones, and more will join them very soon.

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