Theo Hernandez discusses idolising Maldini, life-changing Pioli, areas to improve and future aims

By Oliver Fisher -

AC Milan defender Theo Hernandez has spoken at length about a number of the key aspects of his game and his rise from being an afterthought at Real Madrid to a star of the French national team.

Theo began the interview with The Athletic by taking a look back at his inspirations in football and he of course cited Paolo Maldini, who flew out to Spain back in the summer of 2019 to convince him to leave Real Madrid in favour of a new experience in Italy.

“When I was growing up, I watched Paolo Maldini. I have a very close relationship with Maldini, from the first time we saw each other in Ibiza he set things straight,” Hernandez says.

“He told me that I was a very important player, very good, but that I needed to work hard every day. Thanks to that, I am the player I am today and we are speaking every day with Maldini who comes to watch our training sessions. It is an honour to have Maldini, the best full-back in the world for a long time, here with us.”

The 23-year-old took the leap to join Milan but quickly found himself in a turbulent time as Marco Giampaolo was sacked just seven games into his first season and Stefano Pioli came to the helm amid general scepticism, but it has proven to be an excellent decision.

“I’ve had many good coaches but I think the one that has changed my life as a footballer and as a person has been Pioli. Pioli, from the first moment I arrived, has given me that confidence that I needed to get more out of my game and thanks to that, I am playing the way I am. I am very happy here thanks to him.”

The article notes how Milan use effective pressing and fluid interchanges of position, something that has made the team unpredictable and ‘one of the most interesting teams in Europe from a tactical perspective’.

Theo embodies this perfectly, because he likes to pick up the ball either high up the pitch as a wide full-back or he can even drive centrally, which has led to several goals.

“I feel freer when I cut into the middle, where there is more space. At Real Madrid, I lacked the confidence to play more loose and drive forward but at Milan, I’ve got it. I can link up better with the strikers and forwards. What is it that I like? Attacking and going up the pitch. I play with more freedom to score goals and assist more,” he said.

Is he the quickest player?

“Of course I am. Rafa Leao is a very quick player too but I am first place, without doubt.”

The newspaper La Gazzetta dello Sport recently suggested that Theo and Rafael Leao might be among the most deadly left flanks of any side in Europe along with Robertson and Sadio Mane at Liverpool, Ferland Mendy and Vinicius Junior at Real Madrid and Alphonse Davies and Serge Gnabry at Bayern.

“Well, it is true that we understand each other very well,” Hernandez says. “Leao plays differently to the others in the way he takes players on one-on-one and that creates more space for me so that the opponents don’t follow me.

“Before every game we make strategies. We see where the spaces are and well, the boss told me that the majority of the space was around that space in the middle and well, thanks to that I drove inside and had a lot of space to look ahead and pick out that pass to Calabria.

“Full-backs are not like Francesco Totti, Zinedine Zidane or Kaka. But nowadays, football is changing and full-backs are definitely getting further up the pitch. Maybe I do see myself as a bit of a playmaker. I like to help the team out and even if it is giving assists or scoring goals, I’m very happy. But the important thing is that the team is happy with me and that we win matches.”

Hernandez has admitted that he is still working on ‘the defensive part of the game’ which has at times come under fire, given his emphasis on attacking play.

“A full-back firstly has to defend and then has to attack. That is what I’m improving on, little by little. I’m young still, I have many years of football left and I’m improving on that defensive phase that I was missing.”

Theo is gaining responsibility too, as he scored a brace against Venezia earlier in the month and was entrusted with penalty-taking duties as well as the captain’s armband due to the many injuries and Covid cases.

“It is an honour to be Milan’s captain after working for so long and putting the effort in every day,” he said.

Regarding his international ambitions, Theo Hernandez has made it clear that his recent surge into the France team is something he has very much been waiting for.

“That was one of my best moments of last year. It was incredible. After waiting for that moment for so long to want to play with my brother [Lucas, of Bayern]… we had done it before as kids but it’s not the same as playing with the national team… and winning that title… the truth is, that was a very beautiful experience.

“My target is to work hard every day, give the maximum I’ve got to be able to go to the World Cup. With my brother as well, the two together… it could be a dream come true.”

READ MORE: Five things we learned from Milan vs. Spezia – absences felt; temporary issue drags on

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