MEXICO CITY — Juan Carlos Osorio once compared Hector Herrera to Bastian Schweinsteiger. Whenever Herrera has a chance to mention his idol, he always says Juan Roman Riquelme’s name. Herrera, who made his Liga MX debut on July 23rd, 2011, has experienced a career filled with expectation of what’s next. His quality is undeniable, but at 27-years-old, he’s at a point in his career where he has to take charge of the moment. In the 2014 World Cup, his performances came as a pleasant surprise. He was unstoppable in Mexico’s midfield, but now his main challenge is to confirm that he was born to become one of the most skillful midfielders Mexico has ever seen.
Herrera is arriving to these friendlies against Belgium and Poland in one of the best moments of his career. He once again feels confident about his game, whether he plays as an attacking midfielder or a defensive midfielder.
The appointment of Sergio Conceicao as FC Porto’s manager has helped Herrera retain a confidence level he hadn’t really demonstrated week in and week out since the 2014-15 season when Porto was managed by current Spain manager, Julen Lopetegui.
After this weekend’s 2-0 win over Belenenses, where Herrera was named Man of the Match with a goal and an assist, Conceicao praised Herrera’s current form. “He’s a national team player, with a lot of quality. I have nothing to comment about what happened last season, but I will have to say that I asked our president to keep a base, and in that base was Herrera.
“There can be low moments for players. At times, the fans applaud, and at others, they whistle. But there are players that have an enormous ambition and determination. We want to work seriously, and we want our captain to inculcate those traits into the team. When I arrived I felt a kind of strangeness, ‘A Mexican is FC Porto’s captain?’ But after a while I realized that Herrera, who’s a great player, is also a great human being,” said Conceicao.
Ahead of the match against Belenenses, Herrera also scored a goal in the Champions League group stage game against RB Leipzig. However, there were other stats in that match that stood out. Per InStat, Herrera attempted 15 challenges in defense and won seven, attempted five tackles and completed four, and perhaps the most important one, is that of his five interceptions, four of them took place in the opposition’s half. Porto won the match 3-1 and is currently in second place of Group G with six points.
Herrera’s defensive stats take an important position because Osorio sees him as one of El Tri’s main defensive midfielder options. In last summer’s Confederations Cup, Osorio used this tournament to give Herrera looks as Mexico’s sole defensive midfielder, but for example in the game against Germany, Jonathan dos Santos moved a bit back in the midfield to form a two-man defensive midfield, alongside Herrera.
What can be said, though, is that Herrera’s best football in Porto has taken place when he has another defensive midfielder playing alongside him. Nowadays, it’s Danilo Pereira, and in the 2014-15 season, it was Casemiro. So when the national team becomes part of the conversation, the players that could perhaps take on a similar duty to that of Casemiro and Danilo are Edson Alvarez or Diego Reyes. Herrera, like Jonathan and Andres Guardado, are more of creative players, not so much destroyers. It’s no wonder that although Herrera wasn’t at his finest in the Confederations Cup, he still finished the tournament with three assists.
Herrera is a vital player for Osorio’s XI. He played every minute of Mexico’s participation in the 2016 Copa America Centenario, and in the Confederations Cup, he played every minute outside of the match against New Zealand, where he came on as a substitute and still played 54 minutes. In the Hexagonal, he played a total of 737 minutes, the most by a Mexican player in the last World Cup qualifying round.
It appears that it was Osorio’s idea to incorporate Herrera as Mexico’s sole defensive midfielder in Mexico’s starting lineup, but it was actually Lopetegui who spotted a certain skill in Herrera to take on that defensive midfield role.
One of the first times that Herrera played as Porto’s commander in the midfield took place in Lviv in 2014 when Porto visited Shakhtar Donetsk in Champions League play. Herrera started that match as left midfielder and ended as the central midfielder in a 4-3-3 formation. Porto at one point was down 2-0, but it managed to take back to Portugal a 2-2 draw, mainly due to Herrera’s great passing display.
With Herrera, it’s hard to define how he’s feeling. He always seems to take on any challenge with firm belief that everything will turn out okay. He’s a player that plays the game with a lot of naturality, but through the years, he’s become aware that his actions on the field can be the difference between his team getting the win or not. Much of what will happen for El Tri in the months ahead will depend on Herrera’s state of mind. If Herrera shows no fear to the challenges, the rest of the team is bound to follow.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.