In South America the number 10 shirt assumes a near mythical significance among fans. The brains of the team, capable of turning the game on its head with a moment of inspired brilliance or outrageous skill, the player that dons the sacred jersey often occupies a special place in football folklore.
In Colombia, the most famous and most loved playmaker is Carlos Valderrama. Frizzy blonde locks aside, El Pibe was a player of grace and poise and is still his country’s most capped player. In recent years, there have been a number of pretenders to his throne, most notably James Rodriguez, as well as the likes of Macnelly Torres, Edwin Cardona and Juan Fernando Quintero.
Taking a look at the younger generations there are also a number of exciting playmakers breaking through. Alexis Zapata and Jarlan Barrera both impressed for the U20s in 2015, while Nicolas Benedetti has been making waves at Deportivo Cali. Nevertheless, perhaps the most exciting of the new crop is wonderkid Juan Camilo Hernandez.
Born in Pereira, a city in the coffee-producing foothills of the Andes, Hernandez made his debut for his hometown club Deportivo Pereira in 2015 as a 15-year-old. In his first season Pereira missed out on promotion and he momentarily considered quitting the game.
Thankfully he didn’t and the next season he took the Primera B by storm, finishing the season as top scorer with 20 goals. Deportivo Pereira missed out on promotion again despite leading the table all season but Hernandez, already captain of the team aged just 17, had made his mark.
Skilful, creative and with an eye for goal, Cucho was snapped up by Granada in Spain before being loaned to sleeping giants America de Cali for six months as they returned to the Primera after six long years in the wilderness. He was also handed the number 10 shirt for the Colombia U20s for the Sudamericano and, although it was ultimately a disappointing campaign for the Cafateros, Hernandez impressed with two goals and three assists despite being the youngest member of the squad.
Due to move to Granada this summer once he has turned 18, what can we expect to see from the versatile attacker?
What made people really sit up and take notice was the sheer amount of goals that the teenager was banging in for Pereira last season. His tally of 20 goals is made all the more impressive when you consider that Hernandez doesn’t operate as an out-and-out striker, usually preferring to operate as an attacking midfielder or in a support striker role. Indeed, his current manager Hernan Torres describes him as a ‘midfield finisher’.
The video below displays the range of goals he scores. Although predominantly right-footed, his superb technique allows him to finish well off both feet, as displayed by his sensational left foot volley against America de Cali. For that goal, you can see how he cleverly peels away to create space for himself, anticipating the flick-on and then lashing the equaliser home off his less favoured foot.
Another notable string to his bow is the number of headed goals he scores. Quite a diminutive figure, standing roughly 1.75m tall, you wouldn’t expect him to score many headers but his efforts against Argentina, Leones and Cartagena show that he has the movement, awareness and bravery to be effective in the air too.
Finally, Hernandez has the knack of scoring late goals and in big games. Once again the first clip against America is not only a goal of high technical quality but an injury-time equaliser against one of the biggest clubs in the country, while the goal against Union Magdalena is a last-gasp winner. These traits may be harder to quantify but demonstrate the strength of his personality and ability to deal with pressure in the moments that matter, going some way to explaining why he was made captain at such a young age.
Very much tied in with his goal-scoring exploits is Hernandez’s shooting ability. An impressive striker of the ball, Hernandez often favours shots from distance, which also make him dangerous from set-pieces too. He possesses both the confidence and technique to try his luck from numerous angles – see his bicycle kick, volleys and snapshots in the video below – but occasionally can be found guilty of an over-eagerness to get a long-range shot away, which is an area he needs to work on.
Hernandez is a versatile attacking threat and as such can be deployed in a number of rules. As previously mentioned, he is often plays as a central playmaker or on the right hand side of a 4-2-3-1, although he can be pushed further forward to play just off a main striker. Thanks to his great movement he rarely stays in one position and is at his best when given license to roam.
The video below sees him crop up on both right and left flanks, as well as demonstrating his ability to drop into pockets of space between the lines in more central positions. It also shows not only his intelligent off-the-ball movement, but his equally effective movement with the ball at feet too. Having found the space to receive the ball, he can scurry forward and showcase his dribbling skills, creating opportunities for his teammates and himself.
In the example below, we can see that Hernandez has taken up a position in between the defensive and midfield lines and is able to receive the ball from his teammate. With his back to goal and drawing the advancing Brazilian defenders from either side, he uses his close control to turn and squeeze past them into the vacant space behind and get a shot away.
In the next photo, we see one the best aspects of Hernandez’s off-the-ball movement, namely his runs from deep. With the centre forward ahead of him occupying a defender, Hernandez makes a darting run in between the centre backs from a deep starting position inside the centre circle.
His midfield marker is distracted by the player with the ball, so Hernandez is able to motor away from him into the space between the centre backs and collect the pass before getting his shot away from the edge of the area.
In the final photo below, we see another example of Hernandez bursting from deep. This time the ball is ahead of him being held up by burly striker Damir Ceter but Hernandez is playing just off his shoulder and his run takes him in behind the Ecuadorian defence and through for a shot on goal. This exemplifies the movement skills that allow Hernandez to play the support striker role, as well as the deeper attacking midfield position than we have previously analysed.
As well as his goals, Hernandez is also a provider. He has good vision to slip through-balls in behind the defence, links up play around the box and is good at crossing, which makes him handy option as a corner-taker too.
One of his more inventive if unorthodox assists in the video above stands out. His chest down to Ceter against Ecuador shows a clever understanding of his surroundings and is extremely difficult to execute, highlighting just what an impressive player he is.
Looking at some of the passes in more detail also shows the range of Hernandez’s passing skills. In the first photo below we see Hernandez receive the ball in the space in front of the Leones defence, tempting the two centre backs to belatedly close him down before sliding a through ball through to his teammate.
The second photo below demonstrates Hernandez’s neat link up play, providing an assist for Leonardo Castro against Deportes Quindio. With the ball on the right, it is cut back to Hernandez on the edge of the area before he nudges it through to Castro who finishes beyond the onrushing keeper. Given the fact Hernandez was just 15 at the time it was an early sign of his promise.
The final example shows his long range passing from deep. Collecting the ball inside his own half, Hernandez receives the ball, steps past one challenge before looking up to see a hole in behind the Atletico FC right back. Hernandez then arrows a driven cross-field ball to Stiwar Garcia on the left wing who, still with a lot to do, scores from distance.
Hernandez now has six months on loan with America de Cali, back from their Clinton list induced fall from grace, where he will gain vital top flight experience. He has mainly been a sub so far but is beginning to make more of an impact and get more minutes. It might not be the ideal amount of time to get feet under the table in Cali but it will be important playing Primera division football with a huge club.
A move to Granada will follow in the summer, where he may well find himself playing second division football again. However, this could be a blessing in disguise as it could see him handed more game time away from prying eyes and allow his adaptation to life in Spain. It’s easy to forget he has yet to turn 18 and hopefully he will be given time to develop. Should he continue his trajectory, we could see this versatile, twinkle-toed playmaker at a top European club in the future.