"He's intense and gesticulates a lot. He gives a lot of importance to the ball and possession. If we have the ball it's easier to attack, that's his theory."
Ander Herrera, unlike the team that he plays for, has settled well this summer. He's found a house in Manchester and loves life at the club, finding Louis van Gaal similar in some respects to his previous manager, Marcelo Bielsa, another legendary character and hard taskmaster.
"He didn’t want me to be a player who played with the ball at my feet," recalls Herrera, who thrived under the Argentine's tutelage. "He wanted me to have a change of speed and dictate the pace of the game by varying the play. He was on my back 500 times. He’d insult me in every training session so that I did this. His rows were aggressive, but not insulting. He’d shout: “You’ve got to get into the f***ing box!”
"I once had my feet on a chair," recalls the Basque midfielder. "He came up to me and kicked the chair away. “Do you see me with my feet up?” asked the manager.'
"You’ve really got to like football a lot to put up with him," says Herrera. "I’m lucky as I love football. I watch videos. Others just like to play, not to watch or train. They really suffer under Bielsa. I was two years with him and always in the starting XI. 54 games with a groin strain. I’m thankful to him, but I really enjoyed my days off."
Herrera, however, will not be judged on past glories. He comes into a United side which conspicuously lacked flair last season and so far this term shows no sign of finding it. United didn't create a chance from open play in their first league game against Swansea City. They struggled to get the ball to their front men at Sunderland and hardly threatened in a shambolic performance at third tier MK Dons on Tuesday night - though most of the big names were rested. It's odd; for it's not like United will have a surfeit of games this season. The club have played 12 times in October/November in each of the last five seasons. With no European football or Capital One Cup, they'll play just six times over the same period this year.
Given the talent at the club including record new signing Angel Di Maria, the slide can’t continue. United have bought four players this summer, three of them Spanish speakers. For the first time in the club's history, the Old Trafford club could field a side where the majority of players are native Spanish speakers. It's unlikely that Marcos Rojo, Angel Di Maria, Javier Hernandez, Antonio Valencia, David de Gea, Juan Mata and Herrera will ever play in the same side together there's every chance Hernandez, and even Valencia or Mata won't be at the club a year from now, but United are now more likely to look outside England to Spain and South America for players.
United is also a club in a state of flux. Van Gaal has used 28 different players in just three competitive matches, but he's an experienced manager who will find what works for him. That's what fans hope.
The Spanish speakers will stick together socially in northern England and mix easily with compatriots like David Silva and Sergio Aguero at Manchester City, but they'll be encouraged to speak English in the dressing room at all times. Past coaches have berated players for not speaking in English, though some have learned better than others.
Herrera has taken integration seriously and already insists that he does interviews in English so that his level improves. He's been at the club less than three months. De Gea, who joined in 2011, gave his first interview in English in May 2014.
Spain and Argentina produce a disproportionate number of the world's best footballers, with their talents being one of their most successful exports as both countries suffer economic hardship. It's the economics of the all-powerful Premier League which drive the players to England, but it's to the players credit that they're prepared to leave their comfort zone. There's not a single English player in the Spanish top-flight.
There are now over 400 Spanish footballers playing in 60 different countries, from Herrera, Mata and Torres who make up the 52 professional Spanish players in England, to the 26 Spanish professionals who make their living in Cyprus - a testament to the strength of a youth system which continues to produce players of the highest quality. Van Gaal has desperate need of their services and Herrera seems to be exactly the type the Dutchman admires - versatile, intelligent and highly professional.
Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten)
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- Ander Herrera