THE secret behind Juanma Delgado’s improvement at Hearts is the Manchester City superstar Sergio Aguero.
The Spanish striker spent time studying Aguero’s play for examples of how a foreign forward should adapt his game for British football. It’s fair to say the research is paying off.
Compared to the player who too often ambled around up front earlier in the season, Juanma is now an entirely different proposition. Work rate, aggression, movement and finishing are just some of the areas of his game which are transformed. Aguero deserves much of the credit.
Hearts head coach Robbie Neilson has also spent time with the player on the training field, honing his game for the Premiership after luring him to Scotland from Greece last summer. Energy off the ball is perhaps the most improved aspect, something gleaned from Aguero.
The trigger for the change in approach came last December at McDiarmid Park. Juanma was red carded less than 30 minutes into a hard-fought league battle after appearing to headbutt St Johnstone’s David Wotherspoon. He watched the rest of the game from the stand and realised he had to address mounting frustration within.
Neilson recommended Aguero as a role model in what became an inspired move. Juanma revealed the finer details of his progress in an exclusive interview with the Evening News at Riccarton.
“Since I was sent off, I have had a few conversations with Robbie,” he said. “When we talked, Robbie showed me how the football works here. I understand now that first you must work for the team and after comes goals. Robbie and me had some conversations and, when I was training, Robbie would correct me and show me the right way.
“He showed me videos from some other players who did exactly what he wanted me to do. One of the players was Aguero, who works hard that way. Robbie used Aguero as a reference for me. We watched his movement when he finishes and how he moves into positions.”
The progress means the player is now far more content. His contribution in a maroon shirt is far more telling, evinced by two goals in the recent 2-1 win over Aberdeen at Tynecastle.
“I wasn’t happy when I was sent off against St Johnstone, but during this period out I got to understand how Scottish football works. When I started to understand the concept and the philosophy, I started to feel much better. Now I am 100 per cent happy because I know how things work here.”
Playing for Hearts in Scotland is a distinct change in culture from Kalloni in Greece or Deportivo Alaves in Spain. Juanma was always likely to need time to acclimatise. Neilson stressed shortly after the 25-year-old’s arrival last June that no-one should expect too much right away. His belief was that Juanma would not reach full potential until the spring – a somewhat prophetic statement.
“I said right at the start of the season that he would come in, hit the ground running, then have a lull and come back again. All players do that,” said Neilson. “It takes a guy like that a year to get himself where he wants to be.
“He needs to understand how the game is played and get to the top level. Hopefully, over the last five games and then into next season, we’ll see the best of him. He now understands what’s needed at this club and what’s required in Scotland.”
Juanma explained: “In Scotland, I have found a big difference in work rate compared with other countries. Here, first it is about how you work for the team and after that is goals. In Spain, for example, first you must have quality and get goals and after that the team will work for you. Scotland is different and I can see that.”
Fans have responded to him and acknowledged the gradual rise to prominence. Fellow strikers Abiola Dauda and Gavin Reilly have been left on the substitutes’ bench in recent weeks and Juanma is certain to play from the start against Motherwell at Fir Park tomorrow.
“I noticed the support I was getting on social media,” he continued. “Obviously, the fans are happy – not only for me but because everything is going well. On the other hand, when things don’t go well enough, people can show they don’t support you, too.”
Dissenting voices at Tynecastle could be counted on one hand at the moment, though. Hearts’ recovery from their financial collapse in 2013 has been staggering. They are already sure of a place in next season’s Europa League qualifiers after securing third place in the top flight.
Despite being a newcomer last summer, Juanma insists he always believed the Edinburgh club had the potential to reach Europe.
“I think it was clear from the beginning of the season. I knew what team I was coming to and I knew about Hearts’ history. When we started to plan the season, we knew we had a chance to finish second or third in the league. I knew it was possible.
“Everybody is happy because Hearts have qualified for Europe. I think we are trying to work together for the challenge. It’s a nice and beautiful opportunity.”
At least one new striker will arrive during the close-season but Juanma is determined to begin the new campaign as first choice. He already has his summer planned out. With the Europa League’s first qualifying round taking place on June 30, Hearts players’ break will be brief to say the least.
Neilson’s squad will report back for pre-season training in mid-June and Juanma intends to do extra training to ensure he hits the ground running. When that European tie arrives, he wants to be ready.
“I will just carry on with my job and with my work. I will have a plan to go on holiday but the date for the first European match is June 30. It’s very early after the holiday so I will work by myself through the summer to be ready for that match coming.”