As Real Madrid won their 21st successive game on Tuesday, beating Cruz Azul to advance to final of the Club World Cup, Javier Hernández remained fixed to the bench, denied the chance to impress against a team from his homeland. It has become an all-too familiar scenario for a striker affectionately dubbed “Chicharito,” or the little pea, and whose exuberant delight in scoring goals landed him a prominent place in the affections of his fellow Mexicans.
When Hernández moved to Real Madrid on loan from Manchester United on transfer deadline day at the beginning of September, he described it as “A dream come true.” The excitement was understandable. For a player from a Hispanic nation, there is no bigger draw than the Spanish giants. Yet the reality of what has happened next has been all together more sobering.
Madrid have a strong claim to be the best team on the planet right now, with their streak of victories taking them within three of the worldwide record. Hernández, though, could be forgiven for not felling a part of that, having been on the pitch for just 482 minutes in those 21 games. Of his five starts, two have come in essentially meaningless encounters.
That lack of playing time was eminently predictable. Hernández was joining a team with one of the greatest collection of attacking players ever assembled. The former Chivas Guadalajara man knew he would start directly behind Karim Benzema in the battle for the main striker birth, but the current greatest player on the planet, Cristiano Ronaldo, has also moved into a move central role this season. Add in the small matter of Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez, Isco and the returning young star Jese Rodriguez battling for forward places, and time on the pitch is not easy to come by.
While Hernández has not been terrible in his limited time to impress, he has, despite his four goals, not done nearly enough to stake a claim for a regular starting berth in a team of stars. And what Hernández dearly needed this season was regular playing time. His current predicament is not only all-too predictable but also all-too familiar.
In the past two seasons, Hernández has started just 15 league matches combined for Manchester United, appearing off the substitute’s bench on more than twice as many occasions. Admittedly, being used from the bench is not something new for Hernández. In his first season after his move from Mexico to England’s North West in 2010-11, Hernández made his name as something of a super-sub, able to come on and inject life into an attack with his quick movement and eye for goal. Comparisons with Manchester United’s ultimate super-sub Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man who won them the 1999 Champions League, understandably came thick and fast.
By the end of a season in which he nabbed 19 goals, Hernández had forced himself into the lineup and was named as a starter in the Champions League final. But the signing of Robin van Persie just over a year later consigned him to a periphery role. As his playing time has diminished, the spark has faded.
In some ways, Hernández, like England international Jermain Defoe, has been a victim of the broad shift toward one-striker formations. The diminutive Mexican lacks the strength and the linkup play with his back to goal to excel on his own up front. Still, there is little doubt that his exceptional ability to find space in the penalty box can still see him excel at a high level.
First, though, he needs to rediscover his luster. The clearest signs that his sharpness had gone came with his national team. While increasingly struggling for minutes with Manchester United, Hernández still began 2013 as a star for Mexico. Yet, by the end of what was a tumultuous year for El Tri as a whole, he found himself no longer even a definite starter. At the 2014 World Cup his club predicament followed him to Brazil and he had to settle for a role form the bench.
It appears clear that the joy he exuded, which so visibly informed the way he played and so endeared him to supporters, has now dissipated. Denied the chance to regularly do what you love, anyone would suffer, but it is a frustration that has hit Hernández particularly hard before. Indeed, he has admitted that earlier in his career, he considered walking away from soccer all together.
“I had a lot of questions about whether or not this was the path God wanted me to follow,” he told Manchester United’s magazine, Inside United, in 2011. “I wasn’t playing much football, I was being kept in the Reserves… I was disappointed younger players were coming through and getting ahead of me, and it really got me down, even away from football.”
There is not suggestion that he is considering such drastic steps this time. But now coming into what’s widely considered the prime years for a forward, even he realizes that playing regularly is an absolute priority.
“I need guarantees,” he said earlier this month, according to the Daily Mail. “I am 26 now -- in the summer I will be 27 -- I must be at a club where I am going to be playing regularly.”
Where that is remains to be seen. Real Madrid wouldn’t offer those assurances and are already believed to have ruled out signing him on a permanent basis. His contract at Manchester United expires in the summer, and given the way he was allowed to leave, he doesn’t appear to feature in Louis van Gaal’s plans at Old Trafford.
In all likelihood, Hernández will have no regrets about his time at Manchester United, or indeed in what could be a glory-laden season at Real Madrid, in which he could yet have a decisive impact. Few players realize the ambition of playing for two of the world’s biggest clubs. But now, if Hernández is to realize his own potential on the pitch in the second half of his career, he will surely have to accept life away from the bright lights of one of soccer’s superpowers.