Loan spells can be temperamental affairs. Big clubs invariably want their talented young players to start plenty of matches but, unable to promise such minutes themselves, are forced to hand over control to another manager.
Filipe Luis holds the left-back starting berth at Atletico Madrid, for example, so Theo Hernandez was deemed surplus to requirements by Diego Simeone – for this season at least. After the summer break, though, this arrangement may need re-evaluating.
Deportivo Alaves secured the services of the France youth international for 2016/17, with coach Mauricio Pellegrino once again demonstrating his willingness to hand loanees important roles in his starting XI. Whether this approach will harm Alaves next term remains to be seen, but the likes of Marcos Llorente, Victor Camarasa and Theo have undoubtedly benefited from regular action this year.
“I would recommend Alaves to anybody, but above all to young players, those who are starting out,” Theo told Goal in January.
“It is a great club. In June I have to return [to Atletico], but if they tell me that I have to stay for longer, I would; for the fans and for the team. I am only thinking about carrying on winning and growing as a player.
“Right now I am very happy where I am. The fans and my teammates have helped me. We have a great team and we can finish higher in La Liga. We don’t have to lower our guard and lose some matches.”
At just 19 years old, Theo is on course to make over 30 appearances in all competitions this year – something that would have been unthinkable had he decided to stay and fight for his place at the Vicente Calderon. He will also get the chance to sample a cup final for the first time, with Alaves set to meet Barcelona in the Copa del Rey showpiece next month.
Theo’s attitude is exemplary, and he clearly appreciates his relationship with the club whose shirt he currently pulls on. The best players are not happy to settle for their current situation, though, and the Marseille-born starlet certainly has the uncompromising hunger needed to continue succeeding.
Real Madrid’s 3-0 victory over Alaves at the weekend flattered Zinedine Zidane’s men, with Theo starring as a left wing-back as the underdogs had the better of the second half. The teenager’s immense physical capabilities saw him ask plenty of questions of Dani Carvajal, who was left floundering by Theo on a couple of occasions.
There was one particular moment when, due to the fear of being outclassed, Carvajal resorted to cynically shoulder-barging the overlapping Alaves defender. The Madrid man simply could not handle Theo’s pace, so he was forced to break the rules in an attempt to stop him. It felt like a watershed moment for the 19-year-old, who has since been linked with a summer switch to the current league leaders.
Barnstorming runs down the left flank have been a feature of the wing-back’s play all season. He offers speed, directness and an imposing stature for someone so young; Theo, you feel, would be equally comfortable as a winger, and athletic comparisons with Gareth Bale are not far off the mark.
Armed with a left foot that can deliver crosses from deep or closer to the byline, Theo has the type of skillset that modern coaches look for in a full-back: pace, power, stamina and an untamed desire to get forward whenever the opportunity arises.
Theo’s contract at Atletico contains a €24m release clause, which means he must be considered a potential bargain by some of Europe’s richest clubs. He has performed like a seasoned professional in his breakout La Liga campaign, with a tendency to pick up yellow cards the only criticism that can be levelled at him. Acquiring Theo this summer would not only be an astute long-term investment for the continent’s elite, but it would also pay immediate dividends.
This weekend, Real Madrid will take on local rivals Atletico at the Santiago Bernabeu. Theo is likely to be playing in this fixture next season – although for which side remains to be seen.