It has been a difficult first year with Atleti for Mexican midfielder Hector Herrera. After a very successful six year-run in Portuguese club Oporto, he became a free agent, opting to leave the club in favor of signing for the Spanish club in July of last year. He arrived with high expectations and hoped to earn a starting spot on the team in no time.
But this season has gone far from the way he expected, as he has participated in only 22 out of the 38 total games the club have played thus far, and only 14 of them as a starter, before the season was suspended due to the COVID outbreak. He has only scored one goal and recorded one assist. Definitely not what anyone and he in the very least expected.
He was sidelined on the bench for seven out of the first nine games of La Liga, and didn’t start playing regularly until mid-November. Unfortunately, an issue with his adductor muscle caused him to be absent for the entire month of February. He only got to play one complete Champions League match in the group stages and missed both games vs. Liverpool due to his injury as well. It has been a rough outing so far, no doubt.
In the remote press conference following today’s training session, Herrera stated, “My future is here. I have a contract for a few more years and that doesn’t allow me to think about anything else other than having an important role here, because I live in the present and not the future.”
Is he making the right decision by giving it another shot with Simeone and company? Recent history suggests he isn’t. To start off, Simeone has had doubts about his newly acquired midfielder, especially considering the competition he has with his teammates, such as Koke, Thomas Lemar, Saúl Ñíguez, and even youngster Marcos Llorente, which don’t make it any easier when coming back from injuries or trying to convince your coach to give you a chance. Then you have the age factor. Having just turned 30 last month, Herrera is the oldest midfielder on the squad, another factor that may not be to Simeone’s liking, especially considering how physically demanding his position is.
But going back, let’s recall another Mexican who also suffered through Simeone’s leadership; Raúl Jiménez. Having arrived in August 2014, after a brutal year of inconsistencies and little playing time, by August 2015, Jiménez had found a new home in Benfica. Not to mention, another player who spent time in Mexico, Colombian forward Jackson Martínez. He arrived in July 2015, and after six frustrating months in which he was never given a chance, Martínez left the club for China in February 2016. Even Turkish star midfielder Emre, who had succeeded at high levels with home clubs Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, as well as Italian squad Inter de Milan, was signed by the Colchoneros in the summer of 2012. The lack of playing time and opportunities led the Turkish player to leave the Spanish club in January 2013.
History shows that when a player can’t prove himself in the first months within his arrival or has done something that “Cholo” isn’t particularly fond of, he probably won’t get much of a chance in his remaining time with the club and will have to show himself out if he desires an important role in a club again. In Herrera’s case specifically, I think he is one of the most complete players Mexico has ever seen. He can pass the ball effectively, has range from outside of the box, can move well without the ball, has decent speed, can score, can defend, and is up and down the field during the entire game. He is definitely not an everyday commodity. In that sense, currently at one of the top clubs in the world, if he thinks he can still get a starting spot, he should by all means go for it, as I believe he has the quality to do so.
During a two-and-a-half-month period he showed he could play and mostly start consistently for the Spanish squad, but then went down with the adductor injury. The main questions for me are: Can he stay healthy with regular playing time? Can he outplay the younger stars as he makes his way through his thirties? Can Simeone trust him again? He might get a better chance to play once La Liga returns at the beginning of June because of the packed schedule, therefore fatigue will play a role in some players, giving pretty much everybody a possibility of having their names called.
I believe Herrera is making a mistake. Like Raúl Jiménez, Herrera has the quality to look for a spot on another club, win over the starting position, and lead a team to important accomplishments. He doesn’t have much time though, given players over 30 in Europe for the most part soon start to see a decrease in playing time in favor of the younger ones. Whatever he ultimately decides, one can only hope he makes the most of it and doesn’t result in lost time in his career.