The Hard Tackle assesses whether Real Madrid should make an attempt to re-sign Theo Hernandez from Serie A giants AC Milan in the near future.
In his short professional career at the highest level, Theo Hernandez has seen plenty of highs as well as lows.
From having secured a high-profile transfer to Real Madrid as a teenager in the summer of 2017, from local rivals Atletico Madrid, to being part of a UEFA Champions League-winning squad in his debut season at the club, it seemed like the sky was the limit for the Frenchman.
However, he soon found himself being forced out of the club, with a loan spell at Real Sociedad followed by a permanent transfer to AC Milan in the summer of 2019. Since moving to Lombardy, however, Hernandez has been able to get his career back on track and has steadily grown into one of the top left-backs in Serie A.
So much so that, Real Madrid are now considering the possibility of signing him back from AC Milan. Indeed, as reported by Calciomercato, the La Liga champions have been monitoring Theo’s progress with the Rossoneri and are now plotting to bring him back to the club in 2023, when the left-back will enter the final year of his contract with the Serie A heavyweights.
The Hard Tackle takes a look as to whether such a move would be beneficial for Real Madrid.
Theo’s career progression
Theo Hernandez came through the youth ranks but never made a first-team appearance. And it was a loan spell away at Deportivo Alaves during the 2016/17 campaign that put the left-back on the map.
The Frenchman enjoyed a strong season with his temporary club, grabbing two goals and four assists from 38 games. His natural attacking instincts and the way he bombed up the left flank constantly to provide an attacking outlet saw him being compared to a certain Roberto Carlos just after one senior season under his belt.
Alarmed by his rapid growth, Real Madrid came calling the subsequent summer, snapping him up from their neighbours in a deal worth around €30 million. By doing so, Theo had become the first player to have crossed the Real-Atleti divide since Santiago Solari in 2000.
The expectations were high from the then 19-year-old and naturally so, after his exploits at Deportivo Alaves the season before. However, things didn’t exactly work out as planned for Real Madrid or Hernandez.
What went wrong?
Theo Hernandez’s first season with Real Madrid was a roaring success at the club level as Los Blancos won the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, the Copa del Rey as well as the UEFA Champions League trophy. Being part of such a successful team would certainly have been a splendid experience for young Theo.
However, on a personal level, things did not flourish as he would have liked. Zidane, across his two stints as the manager of Real Madrid, has shown fierce loyalty to his most trusted lieutenants. Among them was a certain Marcelo, which meant Hernandez wasn’t afforded as many chances at left-back.
The French international made just 23 appearances for the Merengues in his debut campaign, contributing three assists. The following season saw a change of managers as Zidane opted to step down and with Julen Lopetegui coming in, Hernandez was shown the door with the youngster joining Real Sociedad on a season-long loan.
The defender enjoyed a fairly decent campaign with La Real, but things had gotten harder for him in terms of a pathway to the Real Madrid starting XI with Marcelo still the incumbent while Sergio Reguilon had broken through the youth ranks. Besides, the returning Zidane brought in compatriot Ferland Mendy, pushing Hernandez further down the pecking order.
A lack of chances, the managerial merry-go-round and increased competition meant that the left-back could never make it big at Real Madrid. And in the end, he secured a transfer to AC Milan in 2019. Reflecting on his spell at the Bernabeu, Hernandez, in a later interview, admitted that he was too young when the move happened and not playing regularly hurt his confidence.
“I couldn’t do my best for Real Madrid, as I didn’t have the minutes. Without the minutes, you don’t have confidence. I arrived at a very young age, I have grown up now.”
Flourishing at AC Milan
Having seen his career take a downward trajectory during his time at Real Madrid, Hernandez has been able to turn things around, and spectacularly so, at AC Milan. In his debut season in Italy, the left-back produced a stunning return of seven goals and five assists in all competitions – finishing as the club’s fourth-highest goal-getter for the season.
And, the 23-year-old has carried on from where he left off in the ongoing campaign as well, having already managed five goals and six assists in 33 games, playing an integral role in AC Milan’s surprise push for the Serie A title this term.
The numbers that Hernandez has produced in his two seasons are indicative of the quality that he possesses. The fact that AC Milan, under Stefano Pioli, set up with formation and tactics that get the best out of him has massively helped the Frenchman rediscover his lost confidence and mojo after his stint with Real Madrid.
Indeed, the Rossoneri play in a 4-2-3-1 setup in which Hernandez has been given the licence to romp forward at will, while the right-back stays behind and offers defensive support. The attacking player on the left-wing, usually Ante Rebic, cuts inwards into central areas, allowing Theo the space to run into and wreak havoc.
As a result, Hernandez’s shots total per 90 minutes in his two seasons with Milan has risen to 1.50 compared to the 0.83 he had in his four seasons in La Liga. His Shot-Creating Actions Per 90 (SCA90) has also followed an upward curve rising from 2.17 in La Liga to 2.85 in Serie A, which puts him in the top 11% of chance-creators in the Italian top-flight.
While some defensive vulnerabilities remain, Hernandez has improved on that front as well, averaging more tackles, blocks and clearances per ninety minutes in Serie A compared to his spell in La Liga. He has also been dribbled past by an opponent less frequently. (h/t FBRef.com)
|La Liga (4 seasons)||62.9||71||2.17||6||0.18|
|Serie A (2 seasons)||53.3||152||2.85||18||0.34|
|La Liga (4 seasons)||62.9||2||0.83||0.25||1.3||-0.3|
|Serie A (2 seasons)||53.3||10||1.50||0.49||6.9||+3.1|
A return to Real Madrid on the cards?
As his performances and the numbers indicate, Hernandez, as a player, has grown leaps and bounds from his time at Real Madrid. The 23-year-old himself admitted to having become a much more mature individual than he was during his spell at the Bernabeu which has reflected in his growing importance to the AC Milan side.
Real Madrid, for their part, have seen Ferland Mendy excel at the club and displace Marcelo as the first-choice left-back this season. The Frenchman has been an ever-present figure under Zidane this term and at 25 years of age, still has his best years in front of him.
But the same cannot be said of Marcelo, who has seen his form decline over the past year or so. The Brazilian will be turning 33 years old in a couple of months and will be out of contract at Real Madrid by the end of the next season.
So, it is time for the club to look at the future. However, given Real Madrid’s financial difficulties due to the pandemic and the stadium renovation, splashing the cash on a new left-back at a time when other positions need urgent strengthening wouldn’t be the ideal case.
Having said that, Real Madrid waiting for a year or two before making a move to bring Theo Hernandez back would make a lot of sense. Another couple of seasons at Milan as the first-choice would only help him continue his development while Los Blancos can rely on Marcelo as cover for Mendy for another year until his contract expires or maybe even a year after that.
Theo, this season, has outdone Ferland Mendy in terms of the attacking output and if he continues in the same trajectory, should only get better after a couple of years, making him ready to return to the Bernabeu and stake a claim for the starting spot at left-back, a spot that was never within his reach in his first stint at the club.