Ask any avid follower of La Liga about the phenomenal return of Deportivo Alavés to the Spanish top flight, and the breakthrough of a certain French-born defender will be one of the first things they will recount. You see, Theo Hernández was an obscure name in football last summer, but in the last twelve months, the 19-year-old has enjoyed a breakthrough season, establishing himself as an essential cog in the tough machine that was Mauricio Pellegrino’s Basque side.
Last August, Theo put pen to paper and signed a new contract with his boyhood club Atlético Madrid. He was immediately loaned out to Alavés, where the promise of first team football and an exciting project awaited him. On the 28th, he featured in his first game in the top flight, eking out a goalless draw against Sporting Gijón. The match clearly meant a lot to him, as he has its date tattooed on the back of the fingers on his right hand. It’s fair to say things only went uphill for Theo from then on.
Playing at both fullback and wingback under Pellegrino, Hernández was key to his team’s impressive 9th place finish and historic run to the Copa del Rey Final. If we speak of his qualities, it only seems right to start with his pace, as he is often regarded as one of the fastest runners in the league. At 6’1,” he also possesses a strong, imposing physique, and during the past year, he combined these two traits with splendid dribbling and crossing technique to announce himself to Spain and the rest of Europe as one of the biggest breakout stars in La Liga.
Not only did he manage three assists in the 2016/17 season—the joint-most for an Alavés player—he also made countless daring runs into the opponent’s half, powering through multiple defenders at a time on his overlaps with apparent ease. This fearless power allowed him to frequently act as a one-man counter attack for El Glorioso, and made him one of Alavés’ many revelations-including Victor Camarasa and Marcos Llorente. In case you needed reminding, he also scored a stunning free kick against Barcelona in the Copa final. This is not to neglect his defensive prowess, however, for at the end of the day, he is fundamentally a defender.
Theo’s positioning is clever beyond his years, and his towering presence means he seldom emerges second-best in aerial duels. Perhaps this explains why he was part of La Liga’s 5th best defense in statistical terms, and it should come as no surprise that like his brother Lucas, Theo has filled in at both fullback and center back. He does make foolish tackles and lose his temper on occasion—he accumulated 13 yellow and 2 red cards with Alavés—but this may be a trait which fades out as he matures, and his fiery personality can be used to his advantage in developing into a leader. We’ve seen Theo emerge as one of the most talented young defenders in football, but what does the future hold for Real’s €24m man?
Theo Hernández’s father, Jean-François, and his older brother, Lucas, both consider themselves French, and spent large portions of their career playing football for Atlético Madrid. Theo started out similarly, but just last summer, his career path took a turn that nobody, not even his parents, could have expected. Just a day after netting a volley to win a Basque derby against Athletic Club, he reportedly disappeared from his team’s camp to travel to Madrid, and it wasn’t to reunite with his old friends at the Vicente Calderón. No, instead, he completed a medical with Real Madrid, Atlético’s fiercest rivals. It didn’t seem likely to happen, because Barcelona and Manchester City were also keen on acquiring his services, and it is extremely rare for a player to transfer directly between the two Madrid clubs.
Against the odds, Real Madrid activated Theo’s buyout clause, leaving Los Rojiblancos with zero leverage in the transfer dealings. As if that saga wasn’t enough to surround him in controversy, he also abandoned training for the France U-21’s a few weeks later, with various sources claiming that he wished to switch nationalities and represent Spain.
Theo’s move to Real has its critics, mainly for two reasons. First, many say it’s a waste for Theo to accept a bench role when he could be getting precious minutes necessary for development elsewhere. Although a valid cause for concern, it’s worth noting that the defending champions of Europe are faced with the challenge of playing in six different competitions for the upcoming 2017/18 campaign. Furthermore, Marcelo himself has at times stated his displeasure at having to play too many fixtures with no adequate player to share minutes with, meaning that with Zinedine Zidane’s rotation policy, the youngster is likely to play many games once he adapts. Secondly, some are wondering whether his style is right for Real. The Bernabéu is accustomed to being wowed by the flair of Marcelo and Roberto Carlos on the left flank, and while Theo’s somewhat aggressive nature would’ve suited Atleti’s Cholismo, there are doubts as to whether he can win Blanco hearts over.
Madridistas shouldn’t be awaiting another craftly Brazilian technician down the left; he is closer in style to what Fábio Coentrão used to display when he was fit, or Sergio Ramos before he started playing centrally. This is not to say he is limited: Theo still ticks all the boxes of the ideal modern fullback: pace, physicality, brave, attacking runs, and a tough-tackling demeanor.
Everything pointed for Theo to be one of the key pillars of Los Colchoneros’ next epoch, but as destiny would have it, he joined the white side of Madrid. This past season, he established himself as the finest teenage fullback in football, and now, it’s time for him to begin the journey towards becoming the best fullback in the world. With Marcelo approaching 30, and with Spain in desperate need of a left back, Theo could see himself as a regular for both club and country. At 19, he is already a pariah for several fanbases: he left his home club and his birth country for their biggest rivals, while ending Aleix Vidal’s season in a Copa Del Rey match. From Pepe to Sergio Ramos to Casemiro, Real Madrid have always had that type of player-the kind you hate if you’re a neutral, but the kind you’d kill for if he played on your team. At 19, Theo finds himself in elite company, and with the best squad of all time, a manager known for giving youth opportunities, and high standards, the only place he can go is up.
Photo: Louie Hendy/@LH_BCFC