Viva Chicharito, the Supersub

Why Javier Hernández is coming off the bench (and why that’s OK)

Last Sunday marked an important anniversary for Javier Hernandez. No, it wasn’t his birthday—the Mexican striker turned 26 earlier this month—or the date of his wedding. It was exactly one year since he had scored for the national team.

It was June 22, 2013, when Chicharito scored twice to lift Mexico to its only victory of the 2013 Confederations Cup. The tournament was another black mark during the end of Chepo de la Torre’s tenure as El Tri manager, but Hernandez’s double coupled with his tally against Italy in a

losing effort six days earlier had left Mexican fans hopeful. Maybe he had turned it around and would provide the scoring spark that was totally absent from the World Cup qualifying campaign.

He went a dozen matches without scoring, but finally tallied on Monday–a year and a day after his last goal for Mexico—in El Tri’s 3–1 win against Croatia that saw them through to the second round, where they will face Holland. The goal, though, is unlikely to do anything about Chicharito’s role in the squad as a supersub—a role Hernandez has expressed frustration with.

“I’ve never seen myself as a sub and I don’t like being one,” he told reporters before the tournament started. “And, believe me, I am tired of a lot of people seeing me that way, as a supersub. I’m a player that has made a difference as a starter.”

Miguel Herrera seemed to have a strange distrust of players who, like Hernandez, are based outside of Mexico, but the energetic manager has been willing to meld the team together heading into this tournament. It’s paid off in spades with goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa (who played last season at Ajaccio in France) putting in one of the tournament’s best performances against Brazil, and midfielders Hector Herrera (Porto) and Andres Guardado (Bayer Leverkusen on loan from Valencia) also performing well.

Even with his goal against Croatia, the decision to keep Chicharito on the bench has been the right one. It’s not so much what he’s not doing as what Oribe Peralta is doing. The newly signed Club America forward, formerly of Santos, emerged as the scorer Mexico needed. Peralta launched a following of Oribelievers by scoring in every game in which El Tri wasn’t kept scoreless for a seven-match period, including a double and a hat trick in the two-legged playoff against New Zealand. Hernandez wasn’t there to build confidence, or chemistry, with Peralta because of Herrera’s reluctance to take any players based outside Mexico’s domestic league.

He was there, though, toward the end of qualification, when Peralta’s early goal against Honduras was the only score Mexico could muster in the Aztecazo to Honduras. And against Panama when Peralta was again on the mark, but a Raul Jimenez miracle bicycle kick was the only thing that kept Mexico in the hunt—even though Chicharito missed a penalty. It was Peralta again who scored in the final match of qualification, Mexico’s 2–1 loss to Costa Rica that required an assist from the United States to keep El Tri’s World Cup dream alive.

The simple fact is that Peralta has surpassed Chicharito as the best Mexican striker, and his form hasn’t dipped. Hernandez doesn’t partner well with Peralta, so he has remained on the bench. Yet he undoubtedly has talent. He has been able to have a positive impact on the game when he’s come off the bench, most notably in Mexico’s final friendly before the World Cup, a 1–0 loss to Portugal and of course against Croatia last week. Whether he likes it or not, he has done exactly what a supersub is designed to do.

Why? Well, for one it’s the role he filled most often for Manchester United last season. But Hernandez also battled a hamstring injury last summer and hasn’t seemed to be at the same level since. He came out of a March friendly against Nigeria after a collision with the Super Eagles’ keeper resulted in a knee injury. He’s recovered from these injuries by now, surely, but being in and out of lineups and rarely going the full 90 in just three league matches and a few cup ties may have limited his effectiveness over the long haul.

He remains the most popular player on the team. He has spawned so many fake Facebook accounts that the second line of his Twitter bio—where he’s followed by 3.6 million—reads I DON’T HAVE FACEBOOK. Fans obviously still love the player, but Peralta’s effectiveness and Chicharito’s struggles to partner with him have led most to trust Herrera rather than call for him to start, even after he broke his scoring drought. With Peralta still riding high and Giovanni dos Santos seeming to grasp Herrera’s system, there’s no reason for Chicharito to move into the starting XI.