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 Posted by Graham Hunter
Jun 24, 2014

Herrera the right man for United

Herrera will celebrate his 25th birthday on August 14, two days before the start of the Premier League season.

The fact that Manchester United are negotiating with Athletic Club for Ander Herrera and are set to sign a deal for the player is the culmination of a couple of years of scouting, nibbling away at a transfer and then, finally, acting with determination.

It has been a financially and culturally complicated move, but it is also the natural culmination of events that gathered speed exactly 10 months ago.

Herrera and I have a mutual friend, acquired by chance during football work in Zaragoza, and he phoned me on the night of Aug. 25 last year.

The message was clear: "Both Ander and Athletic know that United are advancing their interest in buying him before the market closes.

"He's happy at Athletic and it took him a long time to 'come home.'

(Herrera is Basque, and Bilbao is the city he regards as his own city, but he grew up in Zaragoza thanks to the nomad life of a footballer -- in this case his father).

"However," my friend continued, "he enjoyed the experience of the games against United in the Europa League, he fully understands what a powerful and ambitious club they are, and so there's an interest on his part -- if United are fully serious about it."

The message was clear: Herrera wished to know United's intentions quickly and to avoid a situation dragging to the last day of the market, something that could cause anger and resentment among the club's fans or his teammates.

It was about midnight in Spain when I took that call, 1 a.m. in England. But I texted David Moyes and the-then United manager got back to me within five minutes. Yes, we should speak.

It was clear that Moyes liked Herrera but very specifically said that to make such a huge financial outlay -- his first stellar signing as United manager -- he'd wanted to have much more personal time invested in assessing the player.

He liked him and a year and a half earlier wouldn't have hesitated to sign him, because his scouting of the young Basque midfielder was extremely detailed, but his "eyes-on" work on Herrera had diminished since.

Thus, his ideal position was to scout him for six to 12 months, get to Athletic games personally as well as listen to the United player assessors ... and then act or reject.

A couple of days later I got a text from Moyes to the effect that "the club," i.e. executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, had decided to go "all in" on the last day of the transfer window and to try to pull the deal off.

There was nothing wrong with that; some great deals have been done on the last day of the market.

- United close in on Herrera
- Shaw: Transfer Talk: Suarez saga restarts

But it began precisely the pattern the player wished to avoid. Athletic were unhappy with the late flurry of speculation and the embarrassment of lawyers turning up at the Spanish league offices without appearing to be properly authorized by the appropriate parties.

More, Athletic fans were already unhappy at how Javi Martinez left the club for Bayern and with the Fernando Llorente situation, which had seen the forward agree a summer move to Juventus the previous January.

After the move to Old Trafford fell through, Herrera held a news conference last summer to try to put the whole business to bed.

Following that, he found last season hugely satisfying and an advancement of his learning.

Ernesto Valverde has, as expected, proved to be precisely the Marcelo Bielsa antidote that Athletic needed.

The team became more attacking, more compact, cleverer, more consistent, less injury-affected ... and successful.

While Herrera's position during parts of the season -- the middle creative player in the line of three in a 4-2-3-1 formation -- was something he found a test, he nonetheless won Valverde's confidence there.

But he thrived in the matches when he was given a controlling "pivote" role in the middle two in front of the back four and, by midway through the season, he was happy to brief off the record and say on it that he fully expected to stay, that the United deal was now history and that he was both happy and developing quickly as a player.

The last time I met David Moyes before he departed Old Trafford -- about three weeks prior -- I warned him that Herrera's buyout clause was contractually obliged to rise by six million euros to 42 million euros as soon as July began.

He passed that on. If Herrera succeeds at United then Man United fans will have something for which to thank their former manager. The deal is expensive, but not as much as it might have been without that information.

That Herrera is now on the point of becoming a United player says several things.

First, Athletic have been true to their word: it has cost United the full existing buyout clause.

Second, United clearly saw that last season, during which he steered Athletic to a Champions League qualifying spot, was a major advancement in Herrera's football learning -- he's now a top-rate European midfielder. Note the fact that he was on Vicente del Bosque's mind for the World Cup squad.

Louis van Gaal's direction will be instrumental in blooding youngsters at Manchester United.
Playing for Louis van Gaal is a major factor in Herrera's desire to join Man United.

Third, the attraction of playing for and learning under Louis van Gaal is vastly important for Ander, who has precisely the kind of intelligent, ordered, technically high-quality industry in midfield which can lend itself either to the 4-3-3 which United are more likely to enjoy under their new Dutch manager, or the 3-5-2 with which Holland undressed Spain.

Herrera is a European under-21 champion and helped his club reach the Champions League. Think what it means for someone from Bilbao to take the team to Europe's elite competition in a brand-new stadium, only to be persuaded to join United at a time when they won't be playing European football.

That's how persuasive the Van Gaal factor is.

United are buying a talented, professional, intelligent, articulate and aggressive midfielder who yearns to win trophies and to show his leadership.

I think they have done well here. Details remain and, as we've seen before, deals can fall down even at the last minute. But if all goes to plan, I expect United to get their man.

He's probably the right man, too.

Graham Hunter

Graham Hunter covers Spanish football and FC Barcelona for ESPN FC, Sky Sports and a number of newspapers and magazines across the world. He is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World."