It has been a difficult couple of months for Leeds. A change of manager, no win since Boxing Day and struggles with discipline and defence, but there has been one man who has provided a shining light in that time – Pablo Hernandez.
Returning to England 18 months ago after a spell in Qatar, the former Spain international was well known to then-Leeds boss Garry Monk after the pair played together at Swansea.
Hernandez initially delivered under Monk at Elland Road with his cute passing, penetrating through-balls and set-piece accuracy, mixed in with the occasional brilliant goal. He was vital in getting Chris Wood to 30 goals last season and almost helped fire Leeds to the Championship play-offs.
However, as Leeds’ form fell away towards the end of last season so did that of Hernandez, who looked jaded at the full cut and thrust of a Championship season. The Spaniard still signed a new one-year deal, but the consensus was if Leeds were to get the best out of the forward, they needed competition for his place and an option of rotation.
And in the summer that arrived in the form of Samu Saiz, another Spanish No 10 with a creative streak. The big question for Thomas Christiansen – could he fit both in the same side?
At first there were mixed results. Both started in an inconspicuous goalless draw against Fulham in August, but their form soon improved alongside Ezgjan Alioski to form a dangerous attacking trio and fire Leeds to the top of the table in September.
Highlights of the Sky Bet Championship match between Leeds United and Bristol City
Their form soon fell apart, however, and in a defeat at Millwall Hernandez was hauled off after 45 minutes following an ineffectual display. Questions resurfaced over his ability away from home and, after another difficult night in Cardiff, he was left on the bench against Sheffield Wednesday.
A missed late penalty that would have earned Leeds a point against Reading then saw his confidence seep away further and, despite a cracking goal in the EFL Cup against Leicester, Hernandez was benched for the next four games.
Derby vs Leeds
February 21, 2018, 7:40pm
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A second-half performance at Brentford in November, however, changed Christiansen’s mind. Although they went on to lose the game, Hernandez helped rally the team after his half-time introduction, and was back in the starting XI soon afterwards, contributing a goal and assist as they saw off old boss Monk’s new side Middlesbrough. More good displays came in Leeds’ improved form before Christmas.
As Leeds’ form has fallen away again, particularly in the absence of Saiz, Hernandez has been a shining light and their most creative influence on the pitch. He was on the bench for Paul Heckingbottom’s first game in charge against Sheffield United but was their best player after coming on, creating their equaliser before they went on to be beaten.
Saiz’s suspension is now over but there are question marks about where he will fit into Heckingbottom’s side. The new Leeds boss went 4-3-3 against Sheffield United and 4-4-2 against Bristol City; both systems that would struggle to fit in two playmakers.
Hernandez at Leeds 2016/17 2017/18 Games played 6th (35) 1st (30) Goals =2nd (6) =3rd (4) Assists 1st (8) 1st (6) Set-piece assists 1st (7) 1st (2) Chances created 1st (94) 1st (59) Passes 2nd (1877) 1st (1184) Dribbles completed 2nd (63) 2nd (37)
The stats show how critical Hernandez is to Leeds. He is first for assists and chances created this season at the club. He has also attempted the most passes and played the most games. If Leeds are to make enough chances in games, it’s clear they need to find a way to get Hernandez and Saiz on the pitch at the same time. It’s now up to Heckingbottom to do just that.
Hernandez is out of contract again at the end of the season and Leeds’ play-off hopes are hanging by a thread. What the future holds for the Spanish playmaker is unclear, but if he keeps offering the same attacking threat then it’s hard to see the club not handing him a new deal as they look to build a team capable of winning promotion.
Don’t miss the Sky Bet Championship clash between Derby and Leeds on Wednesday night, live on Sky Sports Football and Main Event from 7.40pm