Manchester City’s Yangel Herrera has been at the heart of one Spanish football’s most remarkable stories over the last two years.
The Venezuelan midfielder signed for the Club in January 2017 and has since embarked on three consecutive loan spells, initially with New York City and Huesca before arriving at Granada in time for their return to La Liga in 2019/20.
They went on to finish seventh last season, their highest placing in 46 years and qualified for Europe for the time in their history.
It was something of a footballing fairy tale and Herrera, with his all-action displays, has been a pivotal player in Diego Martinez’s much admired side’s rise.
A midfield throwback
Granada remain on course for a midtable finish in their second season back in La Liga, in which they have managed to balance the gruelling demands of a Europa League campaign that began in the second qualifying round.
Their success has been built on hard work, organisation and playing to their strengths, and Herrera is the epitome of their approach.
In an era in which midfielders are pigeonholed as defensive or attacking operators, the 23-year-old is somewhat of a throwback as a true box-to-box midfielder.
The 21-cap Venezuela international is noted for his tireless work rate in the engine room and someone whose high energy is vital when out of possession, using his combative attributes to pressure the opposition and make tackles.
But there is more to his game.
Herrera is also adept at breaking forward to support the attack, scoring eight goals in all competitions across the 2020-21 season and has shown a particular flair for making late runs to arrive in the penalty area at the perfect moment.
"The trajectory of the club has aligned with myself"
A key cog in the well oiled machine
Operating with two defensive midfielders is a common sight in the modern game and it's in this formation, regularly deployed by Diego Martinez, that Herrera believes he is able to flourish.
Moreover, while his multifaceted skillset renders him an effective operator both in and out of possession, he feels that this campaign has seen him hone his attacking abilities in particular.
“This season’s been that season to develop and really own that skill and get better and better,” he reflected on his offensive development and knack of timing runs into the box.
“Being a midfielder by trade, I always enjoy being able to get forward, but that skill in particular I have really developed and evolved this season due to the opportunity to express myself.
“I’ve been lucky at Granada that they play a double pivot, so it’s given me the ability to showcase my skills in both senses.
“Whether that’s supporting the defence or being able to get forward.”
In short, Herrera has regularly proven himself to be a key and adaptable cog in this well oiled Andalusian machine.
The club has made great strides in recent years, and the Venezuelan believes that this has coincided with his own personal progression.
At just 23, the best is surely yet to come from the midfielder, but he is keeping his feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I feel that I’ve grown and developed alongside the club, the trajectory of the club has aligned with myself.
“It’s been a fantastic experience, an historic year for the club and I’m very proud to have been a part of it.
“I’m very proud of my teammates and how the season has gone, not just this one but since being at Granada. I’m also definitely pleased and proud of myself too.”
“I always believe that should you stay focused on the present and the good things will come to you in the future.
“I centre 100% of my attention on the present, and if it’s small baby steps at a time, I know it’ll pay dividends in the future in my career.”
"For Granada that was the most pressure they have probably faced as a club. He took that and inspired them"
The selfless team player who thrives under pressure
European football added an additional test for Granada this season.
Would it derail their league campaign and lead to the dreaded second season syndrome for those newly promoted clubs who outperform everyone’s expectations?
In short, no.
Martinez’s side have met the challenge head on and for Spanish football writer and commentator Andy West, who works for both the BBC and La Liga, Herrera’s individual displays have been evidence of that.
“It was a step into the unknown for them and at that time he was outstanding,” said West.
“He wasn’t at all daunted by the prospect of the club playing in Europe for the first time or playing Thursday-Sunday.
“For Granada that was the most pressure they have probably faced as a club. He took that and inspired them.
“He was really impressive during those opening weeks of the season and played with a lot of personality.
“Their season started earlier than anyone else because they had to go through the Europa League qualifiers, so they have had a huge demand upon them physically and he has been equal to it.
“You have to be incredibly fit to play the style he does - Thursday and Sunday every week - without dropping your standards. And he has done that, it is something that has stood out.
“He has been one of their most important players.”
Herrera’s eight goals make him the joint third highest scorer in a Granada side whose focus is on sitting deep, frustrating the opponent and striking on the counter-attack.
Martinez’s side are not famed for their attacking play and for all Herrera has impressed with the defensive side of his game, West feels the knack for timely arrivals into the box could develop into a prized quality.
“Something he does particularly well is attack the penalty area,” he added.
“There is a great phrase in Spanish football – ‘Llegada’. There isn’t a direct equivalent in English.
“It literally means ‘arrival’ and it describes the way a player is able to time his runs into the penalty area to meet crosses.
“Herrera has that. He has a sense for the ball. He is brilliant in the air.
“For someone with those qualities he should score a few more goals, but he certainly has the capabilities to do that.”