Javier Hernandez had big shoes to fill. Literally. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s size 13 feet helped him to an astonishing tally of 31 goals in 31 MLS games last season, charting one of the best individual campaigns produced by any player in the league’s history. Hernandez appeared to be the LA Galaxy's direct replacement for the Swede.
Of course, the Mexican striker was targeted for much more than just his ability in front of goal. For years, Hernandez had been viewed as the ideal MLS signing, with several clubs plotting how to get him to the United States before the Galaxy did it in January. Hernandez, the theory went, would help MLS activate and engage the Mexican soccer community.
The LA Galaxy need Hernandez to be more than just a jersey seller, though. They need him to be the apex of their attack, their primary goal-getter, and the 32-year-old has been nothing close to that in 2020. In his current form, Hernandez is on course to become the biggest flop MLS has seen since Rafa Marquez.
At the time of his signing, many argued Hernandez would make the LA Galaxy a more rounded, complete side. The Carson club had been beholden to the cult of Zlatan over 2018 and 2019. While the former Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain striker was an undoubted success in MLS, the LA Galaxy played to his strengths sometimes to their own detriment as a team unit.
Hernandez is more of a penalty box poacher than Ibrahimovic and so the Mexican’s arrival at Dignity Health Sports Park for the 2020 season should have forced Guillermo Barros Schelotto to take a closer look at other areas of his team. This was the opportunity for the Argentine to turn the LA Galaxy into more than the sum of their parts.
Instead, Schelotto’s side sit rooted to the foot of the Western Conference with just five wins in 2020. Notably, Hernandez has started on the bench for all five of those wins as the Galaxy have struggled to fit the Mexican into their team. At this point, the evidence is overwhelming - they are better without Hernandez.
In England, for Manchester United, and in Germany, for Bayer Leverkusen, Hernandez earned himself a reputation as one of the sharpest finishers in the game. While the Mexican has never been a true speedster, his pace and movement was key in getting him into goalscoring positions. Those qualities, however, seem to have vanished from Hernandez’s skillset. This was the case towards the end of his time at West Ham United and at Sevilla too. There has been no sign of them returning in MLS.
Nobody expected Hernandez to be the dynamo through which the LA Galaxy’s attacking play flows, but the extent to which the 32-year-old has been left isolated at the head of their attack has been most concerning. In the last match Hernandez started against the Vancouver Whitecaps, he only touched the ball 19 times. For context, goalkeeper David Bingham touched it 39 times. No player that started the 4-0 home defeat had fewer touches than Hernandez.
With Hernandez out of the starting lineup for Sunday’s 1-0 home win against Vancouver, the LA Galaxy fared much better. The Mexican was still introduced off the bench in the second half, but by that time the pattern of the contest had already been established. The Galaxy had a foothold in the game, with the winner coming in stoppage time.
This perhaps showed Schelotto the way forward with regards to Hernandez. While injury and the disruption of this season must be factored in to any assessment of the Mexican’s first year in MLS, the LA Galaxy are more effective when he starts on the bench. Off the bench, though, Hernandez could still have an impact.
Sunday’s ‘El Trafico’ could prove to be a late turning point in the Galaxy’s season. They have reserved their best performances for games against Los Angeles FC in 2020, beating their Californian rivals twice over the summer. Hernandez was missing for both games through injury and Schelotto surely plans on benching him again for Sunday’s fixture.
2020’s abridged season means the Galaxy have a lower bar to clear to make the playoffs than is typical, with the Carson outfit just three points off eighth place in the Western Conference. A post-season place is still possible, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine how Hernandez can help them get there.