Theo Hernandez has found perfect fit as left-back leader for modern Milan

By Sports Desk January 21, 2022

January has so far been a quiet month for Milan – not that the Rossoneri will necessarily complain.

While technical director Paolo Maldini has failed to this point in his pursuit of a new centre-back – Lille's Sven Botman was a target – he has crucially kept together a Milan team who are again contending for the Serie A title.

The side's progress under Stefano Pioli has prompted links between a number of their players and super-rich suitors, with each possible departure having the potential to derail Milan's season.

Indeed, Theo Hernandez's future could so easily have been the subject of a mid-season soap opera, such is the demand for superstar full-backs in the modern game. 

Hernandez certainly falls into that bracket. Just three defenders in Europe's top five leagues – Trent Alexander-Arnold (38), Achraf Hakimi (36) and Robin Gosens (35) – have registered more goal involvements than Hernandez's 30 (tied with Raphael Guerreiro) since he joined Milan in 2019. In 2021-22, the France international's nine (matched by Reece James) are topped only by Alexander-Arnold (12) and Jonathan Clauss (11).

 

Murmurs of a Chelsea bid were inevitable this month with Ben Chilwell out for the season, while Manchester City – playing right-back Joao Cancelo at left-back – and Paris Saint-Germain – never afraid to splash out at any position – have been credited with an interest in the past.

Instead, Hernandez looks to be staying at San Siro.

Hernandez happy at San Siro

Hernandez, whose existing contract expires in 2024, is widely expected to agree an extension, snubbing the prospect of a big move. Of course, the player, who came through Atletico Madrid's academy, has already had one such transfer.

Having impressed on loan at Alaves, Hernandez headed to Real Madrid in 2017 for an unsuccessful stay at the Santiago Bernabeu. In a single season in the Madrid first team, the defender was restricted to 13 league appearances (10 starts) and failed to contribute either a goal or an assist, creating a meagre eight chances.

A return to some sort of form with Real Sociedad was followed by a permanent switch to Milan and at last certainty and a clearly specified role, leading the attack from left-back.

Only Zlatan Ibrahimovic (42), Ante Rebic (32) and Hakan Calhanoglu (31) have since registered more Milan goal involvements in Serie A; Calhanoglu (168), now at Inter, alone has created more chances (107).

"At Real Madrid, I lacked the confidence to play more loose and drive forward," Hernandez told The Athletic this week. "But at Milan, I've got it.

"I can link up better with the strikers and forwards. What is it that I like? Attacking and going up the pitch. I play with more freedom to score goals and assist more."

Perfect fit for Pioli's side

While these attacking contributions are no doubt what has caught the attention of Chelsea and Co., Hernandez is unlikely to enjoy that same freedom in another side.

At Milan, the 24-year-old's initial task is often simply to get the team up the pitch and into the final third – something he does exceptionally well; no team-mate since 2019 has carried the ball further (231.7 metres) or progressed further up the field (161.7m) per 90. With the license then to orchestrate the play as he sees fit, Hernandez does not always hug the touchline like other players in his position, preferring instead to come inside and use his close control to beat defenders, taking on opponents with 9.7 per cent of his carries.

 

In the final third, as Alexander-Arnold – perhaps far more akin to what was traditionally expected of an attacking full-back – delivers 5.9 open-play crosses per 90, Hernandez opts for this route just 2.3 times over the same period. In fact, the Milan man takes shots himself (1.5 per 90) more often than he creates chances for others (1.3).

Hernandez has similarities with Gosens (1.9 shots, 1.2 chances created per 90) in this sense, with both posting higher figures for expected goals (Hernandez – 0.17, Gosens – 0.25) than for expected assists (Hernandez – 0.15, Gosens – 0.12). However, unlike Gosens, very much a wing-back at Atalanta, Hernandez is typically playing in a back four.

The signing of a strong left-sided centre-back like Botman – or Diego Carlos of Sevilla, another mooted option – would therefore appear to represent a commitment to Hernandez and his carefree approach.

Hernandez's nine errors leading to shots in the past three seasons have resulted in three goals, as many as from errors by Alexander-Arnold (two), Guerreiro (one), Gosens, Hakimi and Clauss (all zero) combined. Such mistakes would surely be less costly with a reliable colleague providing back-up, allowing the full-back to continue attacking effectively.

The leader from left-back

Although "a complete defender" in the middle – as Pioli describes the blueprint for Milan's ideal signing – would help, Hernandez is determined to play his part in defensive improvement.

"A full-back firstly has to defend and then has to attack," he told The Athletic. "That is what I'm improving on, little by little. I'm young still, I have many years of football left, and I'm improving on that defensive phase that I was missing."

The need for improvement was evident in September's reverse fixture against Juventus, Sunday's visitors, when Hernandez's slack early header in the attacking half allowed the Bianconeri to break and, with the defender unable to recover, score through Alvaro Morata.

Hernandez could still have teed up a winner at the end of that 1-1 draw when a drive through the middle of the pitch found him in position to slide in Pierre Kalulu for a chance the 21-year-old would like to have back.

Indeed, Hernandez is far from the youngest, rawest talent in the Milan squad and has increasingly established himself as a leader since the game in Turin, wearing the captain's armband in the team's most recent league win at Venezia and marking the occasion with two goals.

How he and Milan, stunned by Spezia in midweek, when Hernandez missed a penalty, would love to be celebrating again this weekend. With a contract extension on the horizon, Rossoneri fans soon will be regardless.

Related items

  • Nicholson, Bailey return as Jamaica names 20-man squad for Suriname and Mexico Nations League matches Nicholson, Bailey return as Jamaica names 20-man squad for Suriname and Mexico Nations League matches

    Coming off the 6-0 thrashing at the hands of Catalonia earlier this week, Jamaica has named a 20-man squad to take on Suriname and Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League starting on June 4.

    The squad sees the return of striker Shamar Nicholson, who has made himself available after his self-imposed hiatus from the national programme, as he attempted to bed in with Spartak Moscow in Russia. The oft-injured Leon Bailey has also been recalled after spending much of the recent Premier League season on the Aston Villa injury list.

    The remainder of the squad includes Andre Blake, Damion Lowe, Richard King, Javain Brown, Devon Williams, Ravel Morrison, Tyreek Magee, Leon Bailey, Rolando Aarons, Amarii Bell, Jamoi Topey, Kaheem Parris, Junior Flemmings, Jamal Lowe, Amal Knight, Atapharoy Bygrave, Daniel Green, Oquassa Chong and Kenroy Campbell.

    Notably absent is West Ham’s Michail Antonio, who was among Jamaica’s leading scorers in the shambolic World Cup qualifiers.

    Following the June 4 encounter, the Reggae Boyz return to Jamaica a day later before tackling Suriname at the National Stadium on June 7 at 8pm. Jamaica returns to action on June 14 when they play Mexico at the National Stadium in Kingston.

  • Brilliant Buttler blasts Royals into IPL final with another hundred Brilliant Buttler blasts Royals into IPL final with another hundred

    The latest episode in Jos Buttler's outstanding 2022 IPL took Rajasthan Royals through to the final and a rematch with Gujarat Titans.

    The Royals were beaten by the Titans in the first qualifier, forcing them to face Royal Challengers Bangalore on Friday for a place in the season's showpiece.

    Buttler ensured RCB were soundly beaten, smashing an unbeaten 106 off 60 balls to clinch a seven-wicket victory.

    The Royals still had 11 balls to spare when Buttler's sixth six completed the job on 161-3.

    None of the England star's team-mates had to pass 25 runs as he did all the heavy lifting in partnerships of 61 with Yashasvi Jaiswal, 52 with Sanju Samson, 35 with Devdutt Padikkal and 13 with Shimron Hetmyer in reply to RCB's 157-8.

    A stunning Buttler catch had removed the dangerous Rajat Patidar (58) in the outstanding moment of the RCB innings, too, as his almost single-handed pursuit of the title continued.

    Buttler blowing away the competition

    This has long since been Buttler's best IPL campaign, and there remains a slim chance he also takes the tournament record. In pursuit of Virat Kohli's 973 runs in 2016, he moved on to 824 for this tournament with his fourth century. The rest of the players in this year's IPL have produced only four hundreds between them.

    As well as the most runs in the 2022 IPL, Buttler leads the way for fours (78, 26 clear of second place) and sixes (45, 11 clear).

    Top two tussle once again

    This will be the Royals' first final since the inaugural IPL in 2008, when they took the title, but Rajasthan will have their work cut out against a Titans side who are in their debut season.

    Gujarat finished two points ahead of the second-placed Royals in the points table, having won the match between the pair by 37 runs. The margin in the subsequent qualifier was seven wickets. Buttler top-scored for Rajasthan on both occasions, but their opponents have collectively shown they have the firepower to match him.

  • Marcelo and Courtois hail Ancelotti impact ahead of Champions League final Marcelo and Courtois hail Ancelotti impact ahead of Champions League final

    Real Madrid duo Marcelo and Thibaut Courtois have hailed Carlo Ancelotti's impact on the side on the eve of their Champions League final clash with Liverpool, with the former saying he is "lucky" to have worked with the Italian.

    Ancelotti has made a stunning impact since returning to the club he led to the 2014 Champions League title, winning LaLiga by a 13-point margin and leading Los Blancos to the showpiece event in Paris against all odds.

    Madrid have become the first team to reach the competition's final after losing a game in each of the last 16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals, while Ancelotti could win the trophy for a fourth time as head coach.

    That would make the Italian the most successful boss in the competition's history outright, and he has won three of his previous four Champions League finals – though his one such defeat came against Liverpool as Milan boss in 2005.

    Speaking alongside Ancelotti at Madrid's pre-match press conference in Paris, both players hailed the Italian's abilities to communicate with Los Blancos' star-studded squad, with Marcelo saying he felt fortunate to have worked under the 62-year-old.

    "I've known him for eight years, I've been lucky enough to train with him," the Brazilian said of his head coach.

    "He understands football very well and knows how to manage the locker room. It's normal that we all want to play. 

    "This season we haven't had almost any problems, the coach leaves us alone, tells us the truth. That gives confidence to work."

    Madrid goalkeeper Courtois, who is yet to win European football's biggest prize and was a runner-up to Los Blancos when on loan at Atletico Madrid in 2014, echoed the left-back's praise of Ancelotti, crediting him and his staff with fostering an excellent team spirit at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    "The good dynamics of the team is due to the coaching staff, we train very well and we know that they make decisions," he said.

    "But they manage it very well, everyone has played. That's why we are where we are."

    Including Marcelo, Madrid have four different players in their squad to have made 100 or more Champions League appearances (Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Marcelo, and David Alaba). 

    They could become the first team to name a starting XI in the competition's final featuring four or more players with a century of Champions League appearances, having fielded three in their 2018 final win over Jurgen Klopp's team (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and Sergio Ramos).

    Meanwhile, Marcelo, who is out of contract at the end of this season, says any decision on whether he will extend his 15-year stay with Madrid will be made after the final.

    While the 34-year-old was unwilling to give any hints as to where his future may lie, he referred to the Spanish giants as "the club of his life", and says the team has given him "everything" in his career.

    "Everyone knows my passion and my love for the club of my life, which is Madrid," Marcelo added. 

    "[Former club] Fluminense was in its time, it gave me everything at the beginning. Madrid has given me everything too. 

    "I won't say what I think now. I don't want a statue, my story is made in Madrid, and I will continue to do so. After the final, we'll see what we do."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.