He was a name unfamiliar to most of us when he signed in January – I had no idea who Onel Hernandez was.
Just another player from the German leagues was the conclusion. ‘I’ll give him a chance at the very least’.
February 3, 2018 [home to Middlesbrough]: City were already 1-0 ahead through a Tom Trybull goal and Hernandez was brought on for his debut with four minutes remaining, replacing Josh Murphy – a few minutes to stretch his legs and get his first little spell of game time on English soil over and done with. Or so we thought.
As it turned out, Hernandez had no intention of it being a plain introduction – he wanted one which subsequently led to me going; “I like that guy on the wing – who is he again?”.
If I’m being honest, it doesn’t take much too much to win my praise or be awarded at least a tick on the checklist – a little bit of pace and you win a compliment.
So, when in the dying minutes of the game, Moritz Leitner (who was also making his home debut) tossed the ball up to Hernandez and set him on a blistering sprint, he was no longer some random German-Cuban from the third tier. He was possibly, even definitely, a player I had been waiting to see in green and yellow.
A player who you could throw a ball out to in hope of a break and it ends up being one-on-one with the goalkeeper – something that didn’t require every player to have a touch, only for the team to dance around the box until a shot reaches the back of the Barclay.
I was desperate for just another option, in case the ‘playing football’ part of the game didn’t work out.
Yes, Hernandez did shoot wide and, yes, Leitner’s pass disrupted Farke’s game plan of keeping it on the floor but at 1-0 and with Boro pushing for a last-minute equaliser, a long-hoofed ball away from opponents was a relief for fans at the game. And spotting that Leitner wasn’t just passing to thin air with Hernandez on the charge at least added to the excitement of a not-so-thrilling game, as I recall.
Hernandez ended the season with no goals and two assists to commemorate his first four months in the second division but as we’ve come to see, there’s a very strong case of the pacey winger needing those few months to adjust and spend a pre-season with his team.
And it’s the word ‘pace’ that is too tempting not to use. Birmingham and West Brom might not have been the easiest games for those hoping to ease themselves back into the watching Norwich play after a summer break, but in those two uneasy games, Hernandez has proved himself to be “that guy” who could spark something and make things happen.
Norwich have perhaps struggled when it’s come to wingers – we had players (perhaps not out-and-out wingers) who would too often move central, leaving the wings empty. Hernandez has shown in both games that he runs the width of the left wing and has frequently caught opponents off-guard by being there waiting for the ball.
Against Birmingham, he was the Blues’ surprise. For his first goal, I’d be tempted to say he was put on the backburner by Kristian Pedersen to focus on Ben Marshall, only to be caught off-guard when Marshall’s flick saw Hernandez run in behind and use his trickery to squeeze his shot into the goal.
Similarly, in the 85th minute, following a quick break triggered by Dennis Srbeny, Hernandez was the man who provided the best option. Rather than passing the ball into a box dominated with blue shirts in the dying minutes of the game, it was Hernandez’s spatial awareness, which saw him find the space behind Pedersen, that Mo Leitner identified, resulting in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper – only for the Cuban to go wide by only a few centimetres.
Thankfully, he was able to put it right a few minutes later and once again, the term ‘spatial awareness’ makes an appearance. When Srbeny begins his run, Hernandez merely jogs while tracking the ball – he sees Jordan Rhodes making the run to the box – instead, he provides the option on the wing, which is vacant and more importantly, blindside of Birmingham’s defence.
Once a calculated pass finds Hernandez (however calculated you may say Srbeny’s was at the time of tripping over the floor), it’s already too late for the opponents.
Hernandez’s speed opens many outlets and options for City to explore to become unpredictable while adding something they’ve been missing – pace.
July 2, 2018, Belgium vs Japan:
90th minute – It’s 2-2, after a second-half fightback from Roberto Martinez’s team and by now, unless you had a bet on, you were hoping for an eventful ending.
94th minute – Japan win a corner. It’s caught easily by Courtois. He rolls it out to Kevin De Bruyne, who runs half the length of the pitch before threading it through to Thomas Meunier on the wing – it was possibly the most devastating blow to a vulnerable and tired Japan defence.
The final move saw quick-thinking from Romelu Lukaku, who couldn’t risk taking on the Japanese breathing down his neck, choosing to hop over the ball for Nacer Chadli to have a tap-in and seal a place in the quarter-final.
The relevance? Again … pace.
A good break can tear apart defences and exposes vulnerable spots. Albeit they are all players at the top level of the game, it shouldn’t be ambitious to try similar moves – all too often, City had chances to break and run at defences but instead chose to sit back and wait until everyone was organised.
Is there valid to believe those missed opportunities to break cost us?
Looking among the current City team – we have experts in the perfect through ball, even the long ball, and our pass completion is one of the highest in the league. So, what’s not to say test it?
Hernandez is not lonely either with pace – for one, Teemu Pukki came with “technically gifted player with abundant speed” on his CV. Louis Thompson is a forward-thinking player despite being able to execute his role of being a defensive midfielder – he will charge on if given the chance – and he is a tempting thought for Farke to play two defensive midfielders and escape his stubbornness of starting a season using 4-1-4-1.
Felix Passlack’s versatility could also offer such quality of pace, while Ivo Pinto is certainly unafraid to dart forward – though he must be cautious of leaving City’s defence exposed. Kenny Mclean was once described as a player who is able to “make runs to and beyond the striker” adding a new dimension to how a team plays, and Marshall isn’t shy to dominate the full length of the right wing.
Saturday’s game proved that Hernandez’s stellar start of the season was not just a one-game wonder – instead, he looks ready to take on this season. He topped the number of key passes during the game, while he had a pass success rate of 81 per cent. He played a part in all three of City’s goals, although he’ll only be officially credited for the two assists, while it was his run into the box that resulted in Rhodes’ penalty.
To add to this, just two games into the season, Hernandez has proved his capability defensively when called upon – despite the last two results. This is part of a game which maybe he shouldn’t be judged heavily on – it’s not his job – but unlike the player you may have imagined to be a 5ft 8 winger, Hernandez “robust” (as described by Farke on the Cuban’s arrival) and powerfully built physique means he can bully opponents off the ball, stick his foot in or contest for a header – while also be tough enough to withhold the pressures of 6ft defenders trying to wrestle him to the ground.
It’s promising stuff.
Hernandez, as with most of the German contingent who have made the journey overseas and settled in Norfolk, has embraced his opportunity to further this career after only escaping from reserve teams during his time at Eintracht Braunschweig.
He’s a team player, he’s able to get himself in the right positions, he’s able to make calculated passes into the box, leaving Rhodes and Pukki to benefit; he adds some urgency to the team, he influences play whether that be forcing everyone to run with him or contributing with goals or assists.
It’s fair to say Onel Hernandez could be City’s most exciting and influential player of the season if the first two games are anything to go by.