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Explaining Héctor Herrera’s delayed debut

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The Mexican came on against Juventus for his first minutes with Atleti and changed the game. 

Atletico Madrid v Juventus: UEFA Champions League Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Atlético Madrid were able to fight back to draw with Juventus because of Héctor Herrera — and not just because of his goal.

Obviously, the fact that the Mexican was able to head the ball past Wojciech Szczęsny was the most important part of his performance, but his introduction in the 76th minute completely changed the game. Herrera brought a sense of security and experience with him as soon as he stepped onto the pitch. At 29 years old, he was the oldest Atlético player on the pitch apart from Diego Costa when he came on. As FC Porto’s former captain — as well as an occasional skipper for his national team — he is, by all accounts, already loved in the dressing room.

In addition to his personality and confidence, Herrera was technically perfect on the ball, completing all 15 of his passes. By calling for the ball and getting it forward quickly, he immediately solved the team’s issues with playing out from the back against Juventus’ pressing. So many of his passes were long — only Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso and Genk’s Paul Onuachu played more accurate long passes per minute in the first round of Champions League action. This was exactly what Los Colchoneros needed at this point in the game, chasing an equalising goal.

Of course, the goal came from Herrera himself. While he had been placed outside of the penalty area for most of the set pieces won by the team, Diego Simeone waved the midfielder forward for the decisive moment right at the end, when he leapt highest to salvage a point.

Herrera’s impact in the quarter of an hour he had on the pitch was immense, absolutely huge. So why was this the first time we saw him?

Herrera hadn’t played a single minute across the first four rounds of the league season. Not one. Even in pre-season, he wasn’t used as much as would have been expected. He started just one of the summer friendlies and played just 230 minutes in the entire summer of warm-up games. This was despite the midfielder’s decision not to go to the Gold Cup with his country.

Herrera was always going to have to work his way up the midfield hierarchy at Atlético, especially as he was a boardroom signing and not a Simeone one. Koke and Saúl are midfield royalty at Atlético. Any newcomer has to start at the very bottom, as the jester with ambitions of rising up the ranks. Yet Herrera would surely have expected to compete for minutes with fellow new signing Marcos Llorente — who has featured in all four league games so far for 133 minutes — or with Thomas Partey, who only returned from the Africa Cup of Nations on July 29.

“He is a great player who is working very well with the team, but we have Saúl, we have Koke, we have Thomas, we have Llorente,” Simeone said when asked about the options in the middle. “There is really good competition there. Whoever has patience and whoever works hard will end up playing.”

As much as that’s true, for Herrera to not have had a single minute was a little strange, especially as there have been situations which called for a player of his skillset — namely the Eibar and Real Sociedad games. Finally, in the third match this season in which Atleti found themselves 2-0 down, he was given his opportunity. And he took it.

“I knew it would be difficult to get minutes at a club like Atlético Madrid with players of such quality,” the ex-Pachuca midfielder said afterward. “I’m really calm about it. I’m motivated and content. I’m happy to work with Profe Ortega and with Simeone. I need to keep working harder to keep accumulating minutes little by little and to keep earning the confidence of the coach so that he gives me some more confidence too.”

Herrera’s attitude to all of this is good and he seems determined to work physically in order to make his mark. Perhaps this is reading too much into it, but for him to name fitness coach Profe Ortega before Simeone when discussing the day-to-day work he needs to put in seems telling. El Profe has paid close attention to Herrera throughout the player’s first few months at the club, with shouts of “let’s go Mexico!” and “come on Mexico!” often heard at Majadahonda.

There’s a long way to go for Herrera, especially if he is to become a starter. But he has already proven he can be an impact substitute. He at least deserves another opportunity from the bench soon.