Leeds United’s Premier League return is a source of intrigue and excitement as the world waits to see what Marcelo Bielsa has in store. Expect the Argentine coach to send out a side full of energy at Elland Road. But know that, at its heart, Bielsa’s Leeds remains a team reliant on a Spanish veteran whose quality should come as no surprise.
Pablo Hernandez last played in the competition for Swansea five years ago. He returns as a Leeds legend having won the club’s player of the year award three times. At 35, following the restart in June, he was even the driving force behind their push for the title, scoring the crucial late winner against his old club as well as an important equaliser at Derby in the run-in.
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Supporters have come to expect no less. From the free-kicks against Norwich and Burton to the goal after just 17 seconds against West Brom and that chip over Hull’s Allan McGregor. There have been so many magic moments and his left-footed strike on the opening day of last season at Bristol City was a reminder that he is still adding tricks to the repertoire.
Hernandez himself insists that he has played the best football of his career under Bielsa, learning from him every day. That seems extraordinary given that his was an adventure seemingly winding down upon leaving Wales for a lucrative contract in Qatar.
Indeed, he was already 31 in the summer of 2016 when an exchange of text messages with his old Swansea coach Pep Clotet sparked the transfer that would add this remarkable chapter to his story. Clotet had only contacted his compatriot Hernandez to discuss his excitement at his own move to Leeds – as the club’s new assistant manager to Garry Monk.
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“It was just a coincidence,” Clotet tells Sky Sports.
“I told him that I was very excited because I was going to Leeds and I had heard really good things about the club. As I was saying this, Pablo kind of proposed himself. He said that, if needed, he would be delighted to come.
“I knew that he wanted to come back and play in Europe because he had been on loan at Rayo Vallecano from his club in Qatar but I was not really counting on him being willing to come to the Championship even though I told him what a special club Leeds is. He belonged at a higher level than that. But, to my surprise, he was open to it.
“He always had this ambition as a player and a person and he knew this was a club that could go back to the Premier League.
“I thought that was fantastic for us because there are not players like that in the Championship. For what we wanted to do, he was a perfect fit. It went very quickly from there. He accepted the contact offer and he soon felt at home in the city and the club.”
Hernandez had begun his career as an out-and-out winger at Valencia, breaking into the Spain national team in that position in the season prior to his country’s World Cup win. But he was beginning to adapt his game by the time that he turned up at Leeds. “We started to use him more as a No 10 towards the end and that worked very well for us,” says Clotet.
Hernandez continues to operate from the right but the fluidity of Bielsa’s system allows him to cut inside and influence the game from midfield as well as on the outside. That was where his goal against Bristol City came from and indeed where every goal that he scored last season came from – within the width of the six-yard box rather than out wide.
For his part, Bielsa credits the player rather than the system for “making the game fluid” when Leeds are in possession. He described Hernandez as “the player with the biggest influence in the control of the games” for his team – a testament to his intelligence.
“Pablo always had a lot of skill and was very quick,” explains Clotet. “Afterwards, he has become very smart. Now he has added very strong physical performances as well. I think Marcelo has managed to work very well with him and get the best from him.
“He has adapted a lot. His vision of the game is very good, his tactical ability, and, of course, that only improves as you add experience.
“If you are a winger and everything is based on your skills and outmatching the opponent in the dribble as soon as you move inside, when you are technically very gifted like Pablo, it always works out very well. I have seen that with many players in my career.
“These players see that the tempo is different inside. They normally have more time because it is easier to get away from a marker in the middle of the park.
“For me, Pablo’s best quality is his ability to see a final pass. From the middle of the park in that No 10 role or close to the strikers on the inside, your range of passing is suddenly so much more than on the wing. You are able to play really good passes to anywhere on the pitch, especially to the forwards, and I think that is a very important part of Pablo’s game.”
If Hernandez’s ball skills made his success inevitable even as his game adapted, what was less certain was his ability to thrive under Bielsa given the physical demands that his style of play places on players. The pressing game is not an obvious fit for any ageing star.
Instead, Hernandez embraced it. The significance of that should not be underestimated. Where experience leads others follow. His willingness to help Bielsa’s vision be realised over the past two seasons has turned a fan favourite into a modern-day Leeds icon.
“That just tells you how good Pablo is,” says Clotet.
“Bielsa requires a constant intense pressure on the opposition and a constant intense threat on the ball. That requires a lot of physical ability. It has been great to see Pablo match that.
“To adapt himself and upgrade himself to a completely different stature of player and develop himself into the player that Bielsa wants him to be, unselfishly giving everything that he has got in service of the team, really tells you everything about Pablo.”
There have had to be adjustments, of course there have. It has been evident of late in how Hernandez has been deployed by Bielsa. Twice after the restart he was substituted after coming on as a substitute himself. Bielsa might need to be canny to get the best from him.
Forty-five minutes here. An hour there. That could be the secret to Hernandez’s longevity as Leeds prepare for the huge challenge that lies ahead on their return to the top division.
“Pablo is a Premier League player,” insists Clotet. “He still has the ability. He has already done it there and he will have this dream of being back in it having helped this massive club to get back there. He will add a lot of experience and that is going to be important. I am pretty sure that Pablo can and will play a major role for Leeds in the Premier League.”
Hernandez looked an exciting coup for Leeds right from the start and soon became a favourite. But few would have imaged that he would still be such an essential figure as he prepares for his fifth season at Elland Road, one in which he will turn 36 in April.
For Clotet, who has long since moved on with stints in charge at Oxford United and Birmingham City, the credit belongs to the player and his current boss. But there is some satisfaction too that the journey began with a simple text message four summers ago.
“Of course it is down to Pablo and the team,” he adds. “They are back in part thanks to Pablo carrying them there. If I helped to contribute to that then it fills me with pride. From all the reports that I have heard, he has been very happy throughout his time at Leeds and he has certainly turned out to be a fantastic signing for the club.
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