Saturday Apr 10, 2021  
  25/03/2012: Godlike Genius?
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For 18 months I have been arguing that Hernanes is not the godlike genius that many have cracked him up to be. For 18 months, my repeated rants have been falling on deaf ears as people continue to proclaim Il Profeta as some outworldly being who has taken Lazio from mid-table mediocrity to the higher echelons of Serie A. I must admit that sometimes I can be stubborn and indeed awkward with my opinions as I refuse to backtrack on something I wholeheartedly believe to be true but 18 months on and finally, I feel the tide has turned.

Both's ratings panel and the fans who cast their votes at named Hernanes as their “Flop of the Match” in Lazio's most recent game against Catania. They did so, despite the fact neutral panels, such as themselves made Hernanes the best Lazio performer on the day. As a Lazio fan, I do not particularly care what the neutral thinks when it comes to my club and it was clear as day to me on Sunday that Hernanes was below par, and not for the first time. The reason why I now have the confidence to come out and criticise Hernanes yet again is because for now at least, fellow fans like me are willing to share my displeasure.

Unlike those fans who have become critical of the wily midfielder, I am not seeing a regression in Hernanes but the same footballer who arrived in Rome from Sao Paolo in 2010. These displays are nothing new for me and further investigation into the issue from LazioLand team member Eivind Ytreland highlights a key point. At LazioLand, our panel has rated Hernanes' performance in 31 games and in 15 of the games, he has received an above average score while in 16 games, Hernanes was given a below average tally. Our evidence suggests the Brazilian is having a very average season and for someone who cost a hefty sum of money, our expectations are not being met as often as we like. You could put that data down to the player being unable to meet our high demands as Laziali if it were not for the fact than in six of those 31 games, Hernanes was voted the worst player on the pitch. In almost 20% of Lazio games this season, Hernanes had been considered the primary disappointment in our team. I do not think this is a coincidence but more to the point, I do not consider this to be any fault of the player himself.

The problem for me is simple; Hernanes plays on his instincts. In Brazil, he was considered a defensive midfielder and not because he was able to chip in with timed challenges and game-winning tackles. He was a defensive midfielder in the sense that he sat deep in the Sao Paolo midfield and burst forward whenever he got the ball, taking on the opposition as if they were not even there and releasing the ball when it needed to be offloaded. This came naturally to Hernanes, he loved picking up the ball and just running at defenders and executing the pass without even thinking about what he was doing.

Mano Menezes, manager of the Brazilian National team is looking for that Hernanes. He wants to pair him up with the more defensively sound Sandro in the middle of the park while Brazil's latest golden generation in Ganso, Neymar, Lucas Moura and others continue to emerge. It is a similar dynamic to that sought by Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2002 when Brazil won the World Cup with a midfield pairing that consisted of Gilberto Silva protecting the defence while Kleberson probed forward in attack. The beauty with Hernanes is that he rarely finds himself sidelined with injury, making him exactly the type of player a coach would like to build a team around for a major tournament.

Hernanes is just as important at Lazio, but things are different in Italy and in club football. He cannot play as a “defensive midfielder” in Serie A because nothing about the player is defensive. Yes, he is effective in a deeper role but the defensive nature of the league would see him get swallowed up, making Lazio more vulnerable to counter-attacks. Consequently, Hernanes would need to think more in this position and that does not suit him at all. Instead of playing on his instincts, Hernanes would be the lost sheep in the centre of park who would find himself bundled off the ball when making mazy runs or cut off from making sexy passes. The player himself recently admitted that the main lesson he has learned in Italy is how to pull someone's shirt and get away with it. Serie A defenders are too intelligent for the Hernanes who was at Sao Paolo.

You could say we got a bum deal, then. I disagree. By playing Hernanes as a trequartista in Serie A, you can get the instincts back. Hernanes reached double digits with his goal tally last season and I can guarantee you now, if you go back and watch each goal (penalties aside), they were instinctive efforts. The same can be said of his more limited assists. In fielding Hernanes somewhere in the pitch where he has little space, you have a player who reacts instinctively when he finds space. The problem with Lazio is, you need other players to create space for Hernanes to become instinctive and that is what we have been lacking recently.

Last season, we had players who were good on the ball such as Mauro Zarate and Sergio Floccari, who dragged defenders wherever they went allowing both Stefano Mauri and Hernanes to exploit the space left exposed by our forwards. Earlier this season, we had Djibril Cissé doing a similar job with his blistering pace and sheer strength. Even Senad Lulic's pace alone was enough to create holes in opposition backlines. Now, we are reliant on Alvaro Gonzalez and Antonio Candreva who simply do not have the characteristics to get the most out of our Hernanes.

As we need others to make Hernanes' job easier, we are destined to remain with the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-1-2 variant. It ensures Hernanes gets attacking support, making him as effective as he can be. An additional issue is our inability to retain possession with a system that should optimise time on the ball. With a packed midfield, we should be controlling most of our games but the stats say otherwise at the moment. A case in point is our 1-0 win over Fiorentina, a home tie where we only had 42% of the possession against a side who got thumped 5-0 by Juventus in their home stadium not long after. In playing with a formation that requires a trequartista, our game is revolving around Hernanes and when he has a bad day, like he did against Catania, we are quite likely to drop points.

The bad days come when Hernanes has to do something with the ball. He is not a natural trequartista, so we cannot expect him to constantly deliver special passes into the path of Miroslav Klose. That is why Il Profeta tends to shine against top opposition like he has against AC Milan, Juventus and AS Roma this season. They give him less time on the ball and instinctively, he knows exactly how to deal with that situation. There is no doubt in my mind that Hernanes can do better with the right players around him but there is also little doubt in my mind that Edy Reja is currently doing everything he can to get the best out of him. Which begs the question; should we be so reliant on Hernanes?

There is also a secondary issue for me. Modern footballers are dynamic individuals who can often play in a number of roles. If you look at Messi, Ronaldo, Van Persie and all the game's top forwards, they are all comfortable both in the centre of the park and out on the wing. Top midfielders need to be able to both defend and attack. For that reason, I cannot see myself ever regarding Hernanes as a top player. He can either bomb forward or sit behind the forward and wait for his opportunity, but he cannot track back and do the dirty work which is pivotal in the modern game. Look at Napoli who spent a fortune in the summer on two players who can both defend and attack in Gokhan Inler and Blerim Dzemaili. Look at Udinese and how they perform when Mauricio Isla is on the pitch and how they perform when he is out injured. Look at the difference Kevin-Prince Boateng made to AC Milan despite the fact many wrote him off as an average Premier League footballer. These players are invaluable because they are modern footballers who can do more than one job for their team and since arriving at their respective teams, they have taken their clubs to another level. We play with a five-man midfield and still get outplayed by the opposition, which raises serious questions about our style of play.

Hernanes is never going to cut it in a deeper role for us which in my opinion limits us to the 4-2-3-1. While Stefano Mauri is fit and able to work wonders, it is probably the best system for us but the initial idea behind the modern 4-2-3-1 was carved out by an old archenemy in Luciano Spalletti. In his vision of the formation, he played a defensive midfielder in the truest sense of the word, Simone Perrotta as a trequartista, recognising the importance of having a player who is not only instinctive in attack, but more than capable of running back with a vengeance and winning the ball back for his team. Somehow, I think Spalletti would disapprove of Hernanes' role in our side. We need the Brazilian to do more than he is capable of, and that leaves Edy Reja not only with a dilemma for the remainder of the season but also for the summer. Do we sell Hernanes to an interested party and use the funds to buy a couple of solid modern midfielders or do we keep the prophet and hope that the transfer budget can help bring us good news?

(Cathal Mullan)
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