When Phil Neville and the Inter Miami coaching staff reviewed their insights into last week’s physical output from the team, they saw that the player who finished atop the group in terms of distance ran was not one of its younger players or central midfielders.
Rather it was 36-year-old Federico Higuain, the attacking midfielder who has turned back the clock to be arguably the best Inter Miami player at this point in the season.
Inter Miami is heading into Week 6 in the 2021 campaign looking to improve on its 2-2-2 record, and one player who is likely to play a part in Saturday’s road game against the Chicago Fire is Higuain. The Argentine playmaker earned his first Inter Miami start since joining the team last year in this past weekend’s 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati, and his 78-minute performance in the match, as well as in the training sessions leading up to it, marked his latest impressive showing in 2021.
Especially since it was the first time he had played that much in more than two years.
“It felt great. I was working so hard for a long time looking for that opportunity,” said Higuain, who had been limited to cameos off the bench since suffering a torn ACL in a 67-minute outing on May 26, 2019. “It was amazing to play for 80 minutes after a very serious injury to my knee. It was really nice for me and I think I can do it because that is the way I work.”
That historic game-winning goal! ⚽️
Federico Higuain's header (combined with younger sibling Gonzalo's earlier nodded effort) marked the first time in MLS history that two brothers scored in the same game.#InterMiamiCF #MLS pic.twitter.com/oirhhoA7ZW
— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) April 25, 2021
The way Higuain works has been instrumental to him becoming more than just a late-game substitute. Inter Miami upped the No. 10’s training load this year in an effort to try and get him to “maintain his level” during this twilight stage of his career, and Higuain has taken the challenge head on.
Some older players would not be able to handle that increased physical demand because their bodies would break down, but Higuain has thrived. He has played a direct part in three of Inter Miami’s eight goals this season, scoring once and assisting twice, while playing mostly as a substitute.
“People say that when you get to 32, 33, you have got to ease the work load,” said Neville. “No I know from first experience, I know from being managed that you have to actually up the work load, so that is what we did. We spoke to Federico in preseason and we said, ‘Look, Fede, you are going to be worked harder than everybody else. For you to maintain your level, you are going to have to do probably a quarter more than everybody else,’ and he was like, ‘Bring it on.’
“The biggest problem we have got now is getting him off the training ground when he is still practicing, and he is an absolute joy. You just look back and think, four, five, six years ago, how good a player was he then. We are lucky to have him.”
Federico Higuaín –> Gonzalo Higuaín
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) May 16, 2021
The collective performances have been better for Inter Miami when Higuain has stepped on the field. Not only has he combined well with younger brother and Designated Player striker Gonzalo, but Federico has also given the South Florida side better spells of possession and the type of creative play that it has largely lacked without him.
Those qualities were on full display in the recent 3-2 road victory vs. FC Cincinnat. The older Higuain both dropped into deeper areas to get on the ball and help circulate it with quick passing when Inter Miami tried to build attacking sequences, and he also moved into more advanced pockets of space to try and pull the strings with his vision and through balls. To top it all off, Federico set up a goal with a deft heel pass that was picked out of the air.
His overall showing, and those before it, led to star striker Gonzalo saying post-game that his string-pulling sibling had thus far been “the best player of the season” for the Herons.
“Phil gives me freedom to take charge of the function both in midfield and in the final part of the pitch,” said Federico Higuain in Spanish. “Obviously, that freedom comes with responsibility. When you feel a coach confides in what you can do, the best thing one can do is respond (with good performances) when it is time to create.
“When we do not have the ball, there is more tactical responsibility in terms of occupying spaces so that the opposing team cannot attack through the middle easily and so that it is not so easy for them to move the ball around us. But basically he gives me freedom to play on the field and to try and have some type of possession to be able to exploit the spaces in behind the defensive line so that we can generate chances on goal.”
So far so good in that regard. Higuain has again looked like the difference-maker who regularly threatened opposing defenses in MLS prior to his devastating knee injury, and his role with Inter Miami has only grown as a result.
“Fede has been great,” said Neville. “I think he is one of the most popular players in the team. He is the best trainer in the team, and to give you an insight into the work that he does: At the end of every week we get our physical stats through and he runs the most out of every single player last week in the games, in the training, collectively.
“Ultimately that is where we need to keep him.”