Three Manchester United players are in Spain’s squad for their friendly against England at Wembley on Tuesday, a trio who’ve all performed well for their club so far this season.
David de Gea, Juan Mata and Ander Herrera are all expected to feature at the national stadium of the country where they earn their living. De Gea was the only one of the three amigos to play in Spain’s 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Macedonia on Saturday in Granada which keeps them top of group G ahead of Italy on goal difference.
Mata has played 40 times for his country, scoring 10 times, since making his debut under Vicente del Bosque in 2009, but he’s been a peripheral player for the team which boasts the best midfield in the world. He didn’t play in Euro 16, managed 38 minutes in the 2014 World Cup finals, seven minutes of Spain’s successful Euro 2012 tournament and only 23 minutes in the 2010 World Cup triumph. With competition from Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Santi Cazorla, Jesus Navas, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Isco, Koke, Thiago, Vitolo, Nolito, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio and Saul Niguez in the attacking midfield or wide roles, Mata’s absence, despite his quality, is understandable. Spain could provide enough midfielders to stock four top sides. Mata’s best run in the national team came when he was still a Chelsea player in 2012-13.
Mata has played for Spain at every age group from under-16 upwards. He was a regular in the under-19 side which defeated Scotland in final of the European championships a decade ago. That team contained Gerard Pique, Javi Garcia, Esteban Granero and Mario Suarez. He was a regular for Spain’s under-21s when they were crowned European champions in 2011. Also in that side were De Gea and Herrera, plus Thiago, Iker Munian and Javi Martinez. Cesar Azpilicueta and Bojan Krkic were on the bench.
Herrera scored a controversial goal against England in the group stage, plus the opening goal in the final. Herrera and Mata have a running joke with their United teammates Chris Smalling and Phil Jones about that game. That England side contained Daniel Welbeck, Tom Cleverley and Daniel Sturridge, while Spain’s assistant manager for that tournament was current national team boss Julen Lopetegui.
Herrera, 27, is yet to make his full Spain debut. He hopes it will come at Wembley and was delighted to make the squad for the first time this season. He’s not been angry that he’s yet to be selected, but patient. Del Bosque told him that he was about to pick him several times, but the timing was never right. Herrera’s case wasn’t helped by only starting 50% of league games for United in his first two seasons – a mediocre United at that.
But Herrera has been one of United’s best players this season. He’s got a good connection with Jose Mourinho, a feeling he didn’t always have with Louis van Gaal who wouldn’t use him for two months at a time as he struggled to work out how to get United firing. Herrera’s had some great moments for United, but for Spain he was in competition with players who were winning European Cup finals rather than pushing for a top four finish.
Herrera started five of United’s six league games before last week’s victory at Swansea, where he was suspended after being sent off (unfairly, he maintains) in the 0-0 draw against Burnley the previous week. He’d already done enough to get the call up from Lopetegui, who values the player’s attitude and tenacity. Being able to play as a defensive, central, attacking midfielder or even a number 10 helps. He played as a number10 for that victorious under 21 team, with Mata to his left.
The pair, who grew up only 80 miles apart in northern Spain, are close friends off the field and have a superb understanding on it. Herrera reckons that he’s yet to receive a bad pass from Mata, while Mata was thankful for Herrera’s defence splitting pass which carved open Liverpool’s defence on the way to a 2-1 win at Anfield in March 2015. Mata scored both that day, his highlight for United so far.
Mata was a favourite to be ditched again by Mourinho, who’d sold him while at Chelsea, but when Mata plays United usually win. He started United’s first three league games this season – three straight victories. Mata didn’t start the next two – two defeats. He didn’t start in United’s other league defeat, the 0-4 reverse at his former club Chelsea.
Like Herrera, he’s switched on, speaks excellent English and he’s also popular with fans. The bookish pair enjoy living in Manchester, where they regularly explore the city rather than locking themselves away in Cheshire mansions. They also have an undiminished enthusiasm for English football and the fan culture around it, telling any international teammates who’ll listen about Manchester United’s away following.
Herrera has been used in a more defensive role by Jose Mourinho, though he really enjoyed playing in a more advanced role against Manchester City in the EFL Cup. He’s physically stronger than when he arrived in England, while his father – a former professional himself – thinks his son’s football brain has become much quicker in England. Herrera is very happy at United, more so now that he’s a regular.
David de Gea? He’s simply outstanding and can lay claim to being the planet’s best goalkeeper. Herrera thinks that he can become a United legend who will be there for the next 15 years. De Gea is also happier now than he was under Van Gaal, or when speculation over his future and a move to Real Madrid clouded his 2014-15 season.
The Madrileno played more times than Mata or Herrera as he rose through Spain’s age groups – his 27 games for the under 21s is a record. United had spotted what their scout described as a “stick thin” keeper who “we have to keep an eye on” by chance when he was playing for Spain’s under 17s in Belgium. Then he was not even close to Atletico Madrid’s first team. Within two years they were ringing Diego Forlan to check on what type of person he was and whether he’d be suitable for English football. Forlan gave a glowing report.
Like Herrera, De Gea had to be patient when it came for playing for Spain’s first XI. The immovable object of record appearance holder Iker Casillas was ahead of him, while Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina were also top class ‘keepers in their prime. De Gea, who is quieter than his outfield compatriots, only became Spain’s number one this June and played in all four of Spain’s Euro 16 games.
The stars have aligned for United’s three Spaniards. On Tuesday at Wembley, expect to see them on the pitch for the first time at the same time for Spain’s national team.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.