No one was watching Yangel Herrera. Not this time, anyway.
Columbus Crew SC no doubt knew who Herrera was, but whether they had much of a firm foundation as to what he did well and how he did it was doubtful. Going into Week 9's NYCFC-Crew SC showdown in Columbus, the 19-year-old Herrera presented just 61 total minutes of professional game tape and had never started a match in MLS. As it was, he’d only been in camp with NYCFC for three months.
The fact that Herrera was starting in place of a benched Andrea Pirlo only added to his intrigue. And at least this time, deep into the second half of Saturday’s match, Herrera seemed to slip into Columbus’ inner sanctum unnoticed.
In the 76th minute, both sides had already traded two goals apiece, and both were actively prodding forward for a third. That’s when Crew SC right back Harrison Afful centered a ball for Nicolai Naess to recirculate possession and drive it forward. But Afful never saw Herrera.
The Venezuelan holding midfielder came steaming from out of the picture and was on Naess' back in an instant. Afful didn’t sense the looming threat, and by the time Naess realized what was happening it was far too late. The ball never even reached the Norwegian's feet. Having covered 25 yards in what felt like an instant, Herrera took an intercepting touch and then slid in a centered ball for a hard-charging Jack Harrison, who made easy work of the goal. It was the winner. Three points on the road, just like that.
If the moment served to drive anything home, it’s that Herrera and Pirlo may play the same position, but they do it in dramatically different ways.
Herrera’s first MLS start in a winning effort largely went like this. After the match, NYCFC coach Patrick Vieira made clear that he benched Pirlo for Herrera to benefit from the latter’s defensive spadework against an at-times devastating attack on the road. It made sense, but even Vieira might’ve gotten more out of Herrera than he expected.
The Manchester City loanee, who also scored off a driving header in the game, was of course tireless in ball pursuit, and the assist he wrested out of Columbus’ grasp in the 76th minute was not a hustle moment you’ll likely ever see out of Pirlo. If you watch back the tape on the moments before the goal, Herrera more or less flips the switch the second he sees Afful sequestered in the corner and starts sprinting down the central channel to pressure Afful’s only obvious short-to-medium range option. Herrera was essentially gambling that in the event Afful doesn’t offload the ball long – and the scouting report Vieira presented his players no doubt included the note that Columbus prefer to play out of pressure, not over it – he’s squaring it off. Herrera was right. It was a bad decision from Afful, but Herrera sniffed it out. The goal followed.
But it wasn’t just his pressing and energy that lifted NYCFC. Herrera was all-action, and he probably just won himself more starts. Even over Pirlo. His night was not unlike seeing a flower open in late spring.
As ever, Pirlo’s greatest utility is as a sort of possessional trebuchet, launching arced balls over the ramparts from deep in ways close-quarters passers couldn’t. He still does this, age be damned, even if the frequency has slowed. Through the first quarter of the season, Pirlo’s currently 13th in the league in long balls per game (passes over 25 yards) and 40th in passing accuracy while maintaining a respectable 25th in passes per game. You expect the accuracy to dip when you’re so far removed from your passing target, and that’s certainly the case for Pirlo. But at 85 percent completion, he’s also not exactly kneecapping the NYCFC build-up either.
The problem as I see is that NYCFC’s needs are changing. In a lot of ways, Maxi Moralez has developed into the key that unlocks NYCFC’s front line, and while he can take down those deep fliers from Pirlo, he prefers to drop in, get service to feet and go. Pirlo can do this, but he more often prefers to splay his vision to the flanks or up to David Villa for those pinpoint diagonals. Especially with Ronald Matarrita on the shelf for the next 4-6 weeks, those diagonals to the flanks are less useful within the context of this setup than they once were.
To start with the obvious, the defensive brickwork provided by Herrera was the most glaring reason why Vieira went with the young Venezuelan on the road. Here’s Pirlo’s defensive day during his last match, a 56-minute stint in a 2-1 home loss to Orlando City on April 23:
For reference on the above, Pirlo’s two yellow triangles are recoveries, or times he won back the ball, and the purple one is a clearance. Herrera did twice that much in that same game vs. Orlando after coming on as a sub for Pirlo in the 56th minute, let alone as a 90-minute starter a week later in Columbus which is summarized below:
The most important thing to note here are the successful defensive actions in Columbus’ half. There are a stunning six of them: three tackles (the green triangles), a ball recovery (the yellow) and two interceptions inside Crew SC’s own defensive third. The one closest to the box was the swipe that led to NYCFC’s winner. Pirlo, as a point of comparison, has not recorded a single interception anywhere on the field in six of his seven matches this season.
One more thing you won’t see here? Herrera won 13 duels in Columbus. That tied for the individual lead in all of MLS in Week 9.
The less obvious utility, and one I think will give Vieira pause in his tactical war room in the coming weeks, was Herrera’s tidiness in ball circulation. He didn’t sniff Pirlo’s average of 55 passes per game, but he hit 41 against Crew SC at a respectable clip of 81 percent.
But more to the point, he kept NYCFC’s build-up short and moving against another team in Crew SC that wants to hog possession in places where Pirlo prefers to sweep his vision downfield. Herrera essentially halved Pirlo’s long ball average on the season, which was good considering the ones he attempted didn’t necessarily pan out.
But Herrera did manage to largely keep NYCFC’s obscenely high-volume possession machine whirring with smart short- and medium-range balls that swept the focal point of the attack from one sideline to the other over 90 tireless minutes. On the road, without Pirlo, NYCFC still managed 56 percent possession, 85 percent passing accuracy and a 121-pass edge on Crew SC, the No. 3 passing team in the league by volume. You can’t remove Herrera’s influence from that equation.
NYCFC won because of him, not despite him, and his influence was felt on every tier. As good as Pirlo’s vision is, you’ll never be able to say that about him today.
Vieira is right in that he has options. As is, Herrera is still a situational starter, and Pirlo offers attacking variances no other player in the league can when the Italian is switched on. But the problem arrives in everything else. Can NYCFC afford to continually lug Pirlo along defensively and in transition when Herrera is bristling for minutes on the bench?
Herrera’s immediate future will take him away from NYCFC, at least for a bit. He was recently called up to the Venezuelan Under-20 team for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup this month in South Korea, where he’ll get group games against the likes of Germany and Mexico. Over the month or so span of time Vieira will be without his young defensive midfielder, Pirlo will probably feature a bit more heavily alongside Alex Ring as Vieira dips into his bag of tricks.
After that, though, Vieira has the luxury of choice here. But at some point later this season he’ll probably have to make a hard choice, and Herrera is slyly making a pretty complete case for more minutes at Pirlo’s expense.