Wednesday 19th April. By Ryan Baldi.
An unwritten “non-aggression pact” between Real Madrid and cross-capital rivals Atlético Madrid means that the two sides do not pursue each other’s players for the sake of neighbourly relations. But according to widespread reports in the Spanish media, the European champions are preparing to break the agreement to sign 19-year-old left-back Theo Hernández from Los Colchoneros this summer.
It’s not completely unknown for players to swap one side of Madrid for the other, with Real legends Hugo Sánchez and Raúl both having been poached from Atléti, while Argentinian winger Santiago Solari made the same switch in 2000, but such examples are relatively few and far between.
Indeed, several of Atlético’s best and brightest stars have reportedly been on the radar of their all-white rivals in recent years – such as Sergio Agüero and David de Gea – but it was always maintained that Los Blancos would not attempt to sign them directly from Diego Simeone’s men, and would instead wait until they had moved elsewhere before refocusing their attention on them.
All this goes to show that Real Madrid and Zinédine Zidane clearly view Hernández as being worth the risk of upsetting Atlético.
The teenager, currently impressing on loan with newly-promoted Deportivo Alavés, is the younger brother of another defensive prospect of the Vicente Calderón, Lucas Hernández, and is also believed to be wanted by Liverpool, Manchester City and Barcelona.
The France under-20 international is highly-rated and sought after across Europe thanks to his superb displays with Alavés this term, helping El 74Glorioso comfortably secure their top-flight status for another year as well as reaching a Copa del Rey final which will see them take of Barça at the home ground of his parent club in late May.
Anyone who has witnessed Hernández in action will understand perfectly well why the youngster is in such high demand. With 26 La Liga appearances under his belt this term, the 19-yer-old has seen much more first-team action than would have been possible at Atléti, where Felipe Luis’ superlative form would’ve severely limited the playing time available to him.
But at the Estadio Mendizorrotza, Hernández has shone, maturing with every passing game into one of the very finest left-backs in Spain. At 6’ 1”, he is physically equipped to deal with the rigours of top-level senior football, while also blessed with the speed and athleticism required of a modern full-back.
With a skill set which makes him a potent attacking weapon, Hernández’s record of 2.3 completed dribbled per 90 minutes ranks him second of all the full-backs to make more than 10 appearances in La Liga this season, while his average of 0.9 crosses per game has yielded three assists – a tally which only seven full-backs in Spain’s top flight can better.
The variety of crosses that he is able to produce is perhaps his strongest asset, keeping the opposition guessing with swinging centres from deep and viciously whipped balls from the byline played while on the run.
Though the timing of his challenges needs some refinement – he has been booked 12 times this season – Hernández, unlike many developing full-backs, is more than capable defensively, making two tackles, 1.3 interceptions and 1.5 clearances per game.
What makes Hernández all the more attractive to prospective suitors is that his contractual buyout clause at Atlético stands as just €24 million. Considering his current ability and nearly limitless future potential, it would almost be negligent of any major club to not think about stealing him away from last season’s Champions League runners-up.
When asked about Real’s reported interest in the player recently, Zidane kept his cards close to his chest. “Theo is a good player,” he said. “No doubt
“But nothing else. I am focused on what I must do with my players, nothing else.”
“I always wish our players the best,” the Bernabéu boss continued. “When the season is over, we will start to get into those type of things.”
For his part, Simeone is certain that he will be able to hang onto the gifted Marseille-born youngster, insisting that, despite having Felipe Luis as competition, Hernández remains in his plans. “I spoke with Theo a month or so ago,” the Argentinian coach said after his side’s 1-0 win over Real Sociedad earlier this month. “We know what we said to each other.
“I am very happy with how he is doing.”
Ahead of the Madrid derby on 9 April — in which a late Antoine Griezmann strike snatched a 1-1 draw for Los Colchoneros — Atléti president Enrique Cerezo was bullish when drawn on the matter of Hernández’s immediate future, refusing to consider the possibility that he could be set for a move across the capital to their bitter rivals.
“These rumours always surface whenever there is a derby coming up,” he said, clear in his belief that the reports were a sinister ploy to unsettle the visiting side before their trip to the Bernabéu.
“It’s always the same and I wish people would be a little more serious about these things. We are not going to waste any time on this situation.
“No club has approached us for Theo, not about the buyout clause or anything. We don’t know anything about [the interest].
“If Real Madrid ask us about Theo they will be given a very swift and enthusiastic response.
“Theo is our player, an Atletico player who is on loan at Alavés but who belongs to us.”
It may well be true that no club has yet lodged an official bid for Hernández. But with such a low potential fee, for a player with such high prospects, Atlético should brace themselves for a swathe of offers this summer.