It’s August 2010. There is a collective feeling of disillusionment amongst Lazio fans after a dreadful season in which Davide Ballardini almost oversaw relegation before Edy Reja stepped in to carry the side to a mediocre twelfth placed finish. The Biancoceleste’s first attempt in two years at forming a European challenge had resulted in embarrassment, as they limped out of the Europa League at the group stage.
Just as fans were condemning themselves to another season of mediocrity, the club pulled off arguably one of the most extraordinary transfer coups in recent Serie A history, signing Anderson Hernanes from Sao Paolo for a fee of 13.5 million Euros. A little context is needed to understand the scale of this achievement.
Hernanes at this point was one of the most sought after players in the South American market. An integral part of the Sao Paolo side that won three consecutive Brazilian titles from 2006 to 2008, he was named Brazilian player of the year in 2008. The following season, The Times named him as the best Under-23 player in the world, and he attracted significant interest from the likes of Chelsea and Barcelona. As for Lazio, the 20m Euros spent on Mauro Zarate was the only time the club had spent double figures on a player since the Cragnotti era. On top of being an unexpectedly bold move from tight-fisted president Claudio Lotito, it was a huge surprise that a side that had seemingly slipped into mid-table mediocrity had lured South America’s best.
Hernanes’ first season was an undisputed success. Although at Sao Paolo he had been used mainly as a central midfielder within a line of four, he excelled in the role of trequartista and propelled Lazio to a fifth placed finish, only missing out on a Champions League place due to goal difference. He finished as Lazio’s top scorer with 12 goals in all competitions, the highest season tally in his career.
However, this season has seen a worrying decline in il Profeta’s effectiveness, as fans begin to question his place in the team. The recent Coppa Italia victory against Verona seemed to summarise Hernanes’ season so far rather well. Throughout the 90 minutes, the Brazilian was either invisible or poor as he lost the ball frequently and struggled to dictate play against the Serie B side. However, with two minutes remaining and the score level, Hernanes struck a beautiful free kick into the top corner. One moment of magic is what will stick in the mind from an otherwise poor performance.
This season, the Brazilian has scored seven goals in all competitions, three of them penalties. He also has the second highest number of appearances, but this is mostly due to the fact that there is no natural replacement to play in his position without the injured Stefano Mauri. He has been substituted 30 times in 54 Serie A games, something Edy Reja is often criticised for, but often merited due to poor fitness or ineffectiveness. The absences of Mauri and Cristian Brocchi have meant that the Lazio midfield has been stretched to its limits this season, and resulted in this month’s mad rush to sign reinforcements. The fact that the player in the squad with the highest numbers of appearances is Senad Lulic speaks volumes. The Bosnian was signed as a replacement left-back, but has since found himself a regular in central midfield. The same can be said for Alvaro Gonzalez who, although more natural on the wing, has helped form a central three. This has resulted in an overwhelming reliance on Hernanes and Cristian Ledesma, as the only natural central midfielders, to perform. If they don’t, the midfield battle and therefore the match is often lost.
With no other attacking threat coming from midfield, coaches have learned to mark Hernanes out of the game. The asset of unpredictability that he had in his debut Serie A season is now gone. The question is that with the likely arrival of Keisuke Honda from CSKA Moscow, does this mark a spell on the bench for the Brazilian or will the two of them playing together allow defensive attention to shift more to the Japanese, giving the Brazilian more space to flourish?
This is an absolutely crucial moment in Hernanes’ Lazio career. He can either develop into one of Europe’s finest midfielders and live up to his considerable reputation, or find himself following in the footsteps of Mauro Zarate, and add his name to the list of expensive mistakes. Over to you Anderson.