At 6ft with great strength and pace, Theo Hernandez has a making of a great full-back. After a failed spell at Real Madrid where he only made 13 appearances in his two-season, AC Milan finally signed him for €20 Million in 2019. He adapted quickly to his new surroundings and is a key to Milan’s Serie A season with two man of the match awards this season.
In this section, we’re going to take a look at Hernández’s role for his team’s attacks. Most full-backs nowadays have a propensity to go forward during the attacking phase to provide the width on the flanks. When AC Milan have the ball, the 22-year-old is tasked to provide the width and stretch the defensive line. By doing that, not only he can deliver the cross into the box but can also be useful for the switch of play.
The image below, highlights as his teammate switches the play, the strikers and the wingers get narrow and that leaves Hernández totally free on the left flank.
Milan are capable of attacking down the middle through Giacomo Bonaventura, but they more frequently find themselves utilising the clever runs of their full-backs, primarily Hernández. One of Milan’s main methods of chance creation throughout this season has been the wing-play. As mentioned above, the wingers, Ante Rebić and Samu Castillejo would often get narrow to create the space on the flanks for the full-backs. The image below highlights one such situation as Hernández tries to cross in the box.
In addition to this, Hernández is also Milan’s second top scorer this season, he has five goals to his name just one shy of Rebić who is Milan’s top scorer this season, a decent number for any full-back and is largely due to his ability to make off the movements and find little pockets of space.
In the image above, Hernández’s forward run has opened up the possibility of playing a through ball, in this case, his teammate indeed played a through ball for Hernández to finish off. His ability to make these forward runs and creating one v one situations on the left flank is one of the main reasons behind Milan’s goalscoring chances. 38% of Milan’s total attacks come from the left side.
Hernández moves up and down the left flank and tries to create more passing options with his off the ball movements. His passing activity is more concentrated down the wide channels in the spaces where the opposition has not anticipated. His passing abilities are a key reason why he is able to influence attacking patterns of play. With an average of 50 passes per game and 1.2 key passes per game so far this season, his attacking involvement relies primarily on his passing ability.
His ability to exploit the spaces created by the attacking unit compliments his teammates’ movement as a result. In the image below, we see an example of this, Hernández on the left flank plays a pass to Zlatan Ibrahimović who then finishes it off with his left foot, this all started with Hernández’s clever run on the left flank and his awareness to find his teammate at a near-perfect position inside the box.
Hernández further shows his passing ability in the first phase of the attacking play, as he contributes to attacks from the deeper position, As shown in the image below, Castillejo drops in the space between the midfield and defensive line to pick up the ball, Hernández is able to execute a precise pass to him. Passing is a key component of his game, whether he is starting attacking phases from within his own half, or finishing them off with precise assists or key passes.
Off the ball, Stefano Pioli likes to set his team up in a 4-4-2 formation. When it comes to the traditional defensive duties, Hernández particularly excels at one v one situation. He often steps out of his defensive line and presses the attackers as high up the pitch as he can. He also has a good vision and reacts quickly to make good decisions under pressure. He rarely allows the opposing winger to make the crosses and can use both legs to defend so he doesn’t struggle with inside forwards either.
In the scenario above, Hernández steps out of his line and tries to block the opposing player’s pass, successfully in this case.
Below we see how Hernández leaves the left-back position to make the tackle and win back the possession, in this case, he wins the ball and swiftly transitioned defense into attack.
With 16 challenges lost and 15 fouls from attempted tackles, Hernández comes out with a 55% win rate, compared to Robin Gosens (Atalanta)who has a tackle win rate of 51% and Roma’s Aleksandar Kolarov who has a win rate of 54%. He is a key part of Pioli’s defensive tactics with quick defensive recovery. In the image below we see he regains the possession with sound defensive awareness. Here, Milan’s defensive line is out of shape, Hernández quickly realizes this and tries to stop the attack, he uses his pace and the physicality to regain possession.
Pace and potential issues
Despite playing as a left-back, Hernández has a specific role in the final third. He frequently uses his pace to outrun his opponents and sneak beyond their defensive line, which often leads to a chance for him to shoot. To further showcase his attacking strengths, his pace down the left flank is a useful tool in partnership with Rebić. In the image below, we see Hernández has received the ball in the left half-space, he then used his physicality and creativity to dribble past three Bologna players before delivering an inch-perfect cross into the box.
In addition to this Hernández takes 2.78 touches in the opposition penalty area per 90. A prolific dribbler, Hernández attempts 3.92 take-ons per 90 and, of his Milan teammates, only Ismaël Bennacer (four) attempts more.
As mentioned above, Milan are blessed with incredibly fast players on the left side, including Hernández, Rebić and Hernández play a crucial role in Milan’s counter-attacks, Hernández could be found with through-balls from deep; either grounded or lofted. In the image below, we see that he chases a through ball from Hakan Çalhanoğlu to continue the run into the box, he then shoots the ball with his left foot.
Not only without the ball, but he is also very quick when the ball is on his feet. Hernández would try to utilise his pace and the space around him to beat his marker without wasting any seconds. In the image below we see, with Bologna’s defence out of shape, he gets past the opposing defenders before his shot was blocked.
Despite all of his defensive potential, Hernández also displays the propensity of getting carried away and fouling too often and unnecessarily. Per 90 minutes, he is averaging a total of 1.2 fouls and has received eight yellow cards in the 2019/20 Serie A season. This is one area where he needs to improve and learn to be more disciplined to avoid unnecessary mistakes and fouls. The picture below shows an example of Hernández making an unnecessary tackle.
Hernández has evolved into a very capable full-back for Milan as they have previously struggled with the left-back position. His proactive defending and the ability to make lung-bursting runs up the wings have been a crucial part of Pioli’s tactics this season. He’s growing in confidence and his experience with Milan which will surely help him in the future. Despite that, the French left-back has some parts that need to be polished. Defensively he also needs to learn how to cut down some of the unnecessary fouls he commits.
However, this analysis details the technical and tactical qualities Hernández possesses that are helping Milan to challenge for the European spot.