Theo Hernández put together a stellar offensive campaign for AC Milan, at season pause he has five goals and two assists in the league. His offensive contributions helped buoy Milan prior to January. How Theo has fit within the Milan squad is now of interest. He does not play as a traditional left-back. Milan and Stefano Pioli have found a way to fit him into the squad while making up for his major flaw, defensive positioning. Understanding how Theo plays will help Milan decide what formation to play and what players are needed to complement Theo. There is a possibility that Theo could become a core player for Milan, and possibly one to build around. However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, so here is a template.
Understanding the Template:
Theo progresses the ball through his running. He can do this because Ante Rebić inverts and leaves openings for Theo to exploit down the left-wing. Theo will then run into this space. That explains his high rank in progressive runs and dribbles. While Theo scored five goals in the league, this will not be shown in his template because goal scoring from a fullback is not crucial (this is not to say these goals matter less). In terms of chance creation for other players, Theo is above average but not incredible for a fullback. Theo has a tendency to take part in counter-attacks and invert himself. Theo shoots a lot for a fullback as well. He has the 4th most shots per 90 of any fullback in the top five leagues. All three fullbacks ahead of him are the primary free kick takers for their respective teams.
Defensively, Theo duels the least of the Milan fullbacks and is the least successful in his duels. His aerial duel success is above average, however, he is not fantastic at it for a fullback. The concern for Theo, and the Milan fullbacks in general, is that he is not a particularly good defender. His tendency to run up the field and leave a massive gap behind him has hurt the Milan back line. Typically, Franck Kessié, or whoever has been the right-sided central midfielder, has needed to fill the space vacated by Theo. There is a lack of defensive awareness in Theo’s game and solving this problem will help Milan’s defensive stability.
This is an example of Theo struggling to defend and track players after he is beaten. He is not out of position on this play, but he is certainly out dueled. Organizing Milan to let Theo attack and limit his defensive responsibilities is intelligent.
What Theo Has Been:
In Milan’s 4-4-2 system, Theo is allowed to cover the entirety of the left flank. Rebić’s role is to invert and join the box as a support striker for Zlatan Ibrahimović. When Rebić inverts, Theo takes over the space he exits when Milan attacks. Theo will cross the ball, but it is not a strength of his. While Theo had only one assist before the season break, he has an expected assist total of 2.63. His per 90 xA total is not particularly high either for an attacking fullback. What Theo does do is shoot, and he shoots a lot. An inverted fullback, which is what Theo seems to be, is a strange style of play. In attacking positions, Theo will either drive towards the end line and make a quick cut towards the goal or drive towards the top of the box, starting his run from deeper in the field. Then Theo will shoot. Theo still crosses, but unlike other prominent offensive fullbacks, that is not his best trait and not even a tendency.
Three of Theo’s goals came from a run that someone would expect a left-winger to make. Theo starts wide, with or without the ball, and darts towards the penalty spot to either finish sublimely or connect on a cross, sometimes from the other fullback. The shot against Udinese Calcio is fantastic, even if it was a low xG shot. The other goal, against Parma, is unrepeatable because the ball takes three extreme deflections before reaching Theo (who still finishes well). In possession, Theo almost plays as a support winger, or as I have been saying, an inverted fullback.
Here is an example of the positioning and runs that Theo tends to make. He pops up at the penalty spot to connect to Davide Calabria’s cross. While the shot takes a deflection, Theo still makes a run towards the penalty spot and still scores.
Theo has a problem with wastefulness because of his tendency to shoot. He also struggles to maintain his defensive shape and does not recover properly when he pushes up field. The gap he leaves behind himself is easily exploited by the opposition. Milan has solved this by dropping a midfielder in the gap that Theo leaves (the game against Juventus FC at the Allianz Stadium is a good example). He is an octagon in a round hole.
How to Make Theo the Best Theo:
Milan has already transitioned into a two-man midfield, however, there is a further step to go. A three or five-man back line would limit the defensive responsibilities of Theo while giving him the freedom to range forward. Teams like FC Internazionale (I know, I know) and Borussia Dortmund have successfully played with aggressive wing backs. Dortmund is a closer comparison for what their fullbacks do than Inter. Achraf Hakimi and Raphaël Guerreiro are both allowed to invert if they wish but typically stay wide to support the attacking three of Dortmund. Theo would fit into a similar system where he has the ability to invert if he wishes, but his main purpose is to control the left-wing, especially offensively. Dortmund’s type of system provides cover for these explorative wingbacks. This is exactly what Theo needs. Milan already has two starting-caliber center backs, with two backup caliber center backs as well. Alessio Romagnoli in a three-man center back pairing would be the one providing cover for Theo.
For the Milan midfield, Kessié, or whoever the left-sided midfielder is, will not have to cover the gap vacated by Theo as much. Romagnoli will help gap control on defense and allow Theo more time to return to his position on defense. In possession, the center back trio will flex forward and provide cover and support to the midfield and for Theo.
This is an example of what Milan could play to maximize Theo.
Some Forecasting for Theo:
Theo, for the past two seasons, has had high individual xG, progressive runs, and dribbles for a fullback. He is not an offensive fullback in the vein of the Liverpool duo where they are creators for others (they pass a lot). Theo is a shooting fullback. I think a position change is in order. His dueling percentile rank has always been low. This does not say to me that he is a true left-back. While anything is teachable, for Theo the best short term option is to move him into a wing back position. It will minimize his defensive responsibilities while maximizing his attacking output.
Secondly, Theo needs to improve his crossing. Wing-backs have more freedom in how they attack than fullbacks, however, Theo’s struggles to cross are concerning. He has never been a strong crosser and this season was more evidence of that.
His willingness to become a support player in the box is admirable, but it seems from his three seasons playing left-back in the top five European leagues that he is not a true left-back. A move to left wing-back and training in defensive positioning and crossing could help Theo turn into one of the best wing-backs on the planet. The goals may not come as often next season, but that by no means should prevent Theo from providing more assists and offering more defensive support.
I will be doing more Milan player profiles. They will almost entirely focus on players who do something out of the ordinary. There will not be many, but they will be in-depth. I have also been watching the Bundesliga and I have hidden this from you all, but I love Bayer Leverkusen. I highly recommend watching them. They are a perfect mixture of young, fast, organized, and good. I hope everyone is doing well and you will see more from me soon.
Everybody loves Kai Havertz.