The Tactics That Made Theo Hernandez a Rising Star at Milan

Theo Hernandez is a player that by 23 years old has already managed to play for two of the world’s biggest clubs, Real Madrid and Milan. Here are tactics that make him one of the most exciting defenders to watch in Serie A at present.

A Teenage Champions League Winner

To say that Theo Hernandez’s rise to the top was quick would be an understatement. A Champions League and Club World Cup winner, things seemed to come easy for the young Frenchman. But, just as his reputation grew, for a while the defender’s career looked in jeopardy.

Theo Bernard François Hernandez was born in Marseille but got his start playing for Atletico Madrid’s prestigious youth academy. Sadly for the Frenchman, he wouldn’t manage to make any appearances for the senior side before being loaned out to Alavès, where he impressed.

Next, Real Madrid – arguably the best team in Europe at the time – came calling. They signed Hernandez in 2017, opting to pay his €24 million release clause. By 2018, the defender was a Champions League winner, having starred in three matches for Los Blancos in the competition.

Still, it was history repeating itself at the end of the season. Unwilling to give a young hopeful more playing time, Real loaned Hernandez out to Real Sociedad. This, despite the fact that his style greatly resembled that of Marcelo, a player in his 30s.

It was at Real Sociedad that Hernandez’s pace, agility, and passing abilities came to the forefront. These were in part to account for Milan’s decision to spend €20 million for the youngster in 2019. He was to be another young star that fans of Los Merengues would hardly get to watch.

Theo Hernandez, a Defender with the Skills of an Attacker

Theo Hernandez‘s display always announced him as a modern left-back. Although he posses relatively good defensive attributes, it is his ability to help attacking buildup that makes him a potential superstar.

The Frenchman’s timing may have been ideal. In 2019, Milan were a team rebuilding and dreaming of scaling the same heights they had done in decades prior. By 2020, they were once again a club capable of challenging for silverware. It’s no coincidence that Hernandez recorded his best output, nearly a goal every five games, here.

A Modern Attacking Full-Back

In his most recent appearance at the time of writing, Theo Hernandez provided an assist in Milan’s 4-0 victory over Crotone. It was a display telling of the Frenchman’s style. Stefano Pioli opted to use his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation. Much of the team’s buildup occurred on the left flank and Hernandez throughout the match advanced, essentially, into a wide midfielder position.


The attacking full-back is one of the most important roles in modern football. Some consider it as important as the playmaker role was in generations prior. Still, it is rare to find a player who has mastered all the skills to occupy such a position. Theo Hernandez has.

The Frenchman has proven to be a great crosser and passer of the ball throughout the seasons he has played for different clubs. In this campaign, he averaged a passing accuracy of 82% and crosses the ball 0.4 times per game. He’s also capable of switching play from one flank to another and can offer laser-focused long passes forward. Hernandez also made 1.4 shots per game and 2.3 dribbles. These, clearly, are stats in which an attacker might take pride.

Fitting into Stefano Pioli’s Tactical Vision

Pioli is a veteran manager. He had coached more than a dozen clubs before joining Milan in 2019. To the surprise of some, his involvement has coincided with a renewal of the Rossoneri‘s power.

The manager likes to deploy his players in a 4-4-2 formation that has, gradually, evolved into a 4-2-3-1. Pioli’s tactics, usually, involves attacking buildup being carried out on the wings.  Central midfielders like Ismael Bennacer and Franck Kessié are encouraged to try a short passing game. Meanwhile, playmakers Hakan Calhanoglu or Sandro Tonali will drift into wider areas. Zlatan Ibrahimovic remains the team’s biggest goal threat.

Hernandez uses his speed to push up a lot, almost acting as a winger. He is, however, also required to backtrack to a defensive role when possession is lost, with no other player covering the left flank.

Hernandez’s Defensive Work

Theo Hernandez has his critics, of course. Most of these may have not yet been won over by the player’s defensive display. It is true that the Frenchman is more useful in helping the team in front of goal than at the back. His link-up play, recovery of the ball, and ability to win decisive aerial duels are not poor, but not yet stellar either.

However, Theo Hernandez does excel in one-on-one duels. He is capable of blocking passing avenues, avoiding crosses from the left flank, and winning back the ball without fouling. Generally, he wins more than half of these challenges. This season he averaged 1.8 tackles per game and 1.5 clearances.

The defender is also able to use his magnificent pace to win back possession. However, he also tends to solve certain difficult situations by fouling his opponents. In 2020 he averages 1.2 fouls per game. In 2021, his foul-rate has decreased to 0.9 per game.

Has Theo Hernandez Reached His Full Potential?

Theo Hernandez was always a player that seemed designed for the big time. However, his lack of playing in Madrid could have easily derailed his career. As a vital player for one of Italy’s finest sides, the Frenchman finally commands the attention he deserves.

An exceptional attacking full-back player, Hernandez has scored four goals this season and has managed four assists. He has an xG (Expected Goal Ratio) of 0.1 per game. He contributes to 41% of Milan’s plays that end up with a shot on goal.

Hernandez’s development as a player is almost over. He has managed to become one of the best attacking left-backs in the modern game of football. His defensive style still requires work, but much of this will arrive through added experience. With a manager like Stefano Pioli who believes in him, there’s no end in sight to what this young French defender can achieve.