There’s no doubt surrounding just how difficult Leeds United are to play against. Marcelo Bielsa’s men run you into the ground, can pass you to death and puncture through you with piercing attacks at any stage of the game.
Leeds have done that to Stoke City and Swansea City in the past week, albeit with two entirely different performances. Last Thursday’s 5-0 demolition of Stoke was a slog for 45 minutes and then a breeze, whilst a Sunday afternoon trip to Wales was tough, but Bielsa eventually got the goal he craved.
It’s been a week when so much has gone right for Leeds in terms of results and as we settle down to watch West Brom and Fulham kick-off the 44th game week of the season, only four points separate Bielsa from his ultimate goal.
It’s also been a seven days where heroes could be made or, in the case of a certain Pablo Hernandez, legendary status could be achieved. The Spaniard has been on that path for a long time now but in years to come, the tale of his impact against Stoke and Swansea could be something passed through generations of Leeds United supporters.
The graphic below highlights Hernandez’s key stats from the games on Thursday and Sunday, but they don’t tell the whole picture; not in terms of his impact on the game or what it means for Leeds’ promotion push:
On both occasions he’s entered the game as a half-time substitute. Bielsa is managing him carefully and dripping him the minutes required to not aggravate the knock he carried into the restart. Starting with Stoke, he arrived into a contest Leeds were leading 1-0 after the reckless Tommy Smith offered Mateusz Klich the chance to put his side ahead from the penalty spot.
Right from the off, Hernandez was at it, bursting forward with the ball as Leeds kicked off the second-half. It took just two minutes before his first key involvement, as a neat piece of interplay on the left with Stuart Dallas sent the Leeds full-back between the lines. His task was simple, to roll Helder Costa in-behind and allow him to poke beyond Jack Butland.
Stoke’s concessions either side of the break were costly and if Michael O’Neill’s side dared to step out of shape from here, Hernandez was often on hand to punish them. His progressive run across the face of the Potters’ back-five on 57 minutes brought a third goal for Leeds as Kalvin Phillips picked out Hernandez, who teed up Liam Cooper to knuckle the ball out of Butland’s reach.
Not one to miss out on such a rout, Hernandez was on the scoresheet on 72 minutes; Luke Ayling and Costa combined down the right to find him unmarked on the edge of the area, with the 35-year-old clinically firing beyond Butland. Patrick Bamford wrapped up the scoring and Hernandez had inspired Leeds to a five-star performance.
Three days later there was a return to Swansea for Hernandez. It’s a fixture the Spaniard likes and his connection with the Swans is a special one. They won the League Cup together in 2013 and allowed the playmaker a chance to announce himself to the English game. He was on the bench once more, but he wasn’t there to catch up with old friends: business to be done as West Brom and Brentford still hunt Leeds down.
Bielsa watched his side battle through a tough first-half and chances were limited. Dallas and Bamford forced Freddie Woodman into reflex saves, but a cutting edge was missing from Leeds’ play. The response to that at half-time? Hernandez.
It continued to be a slog in Swansea despite the introduction of Hernandez and Leeds were facing a very different challenge to the one that Stoke presented them days earlier. Woodman denied Bamford’s header after good work from Hernandez and Harrison, who were both off-target with frustrated efforts as the half ticked on. 0-0 seemed inevitable; not a poor result by any stretch against the play-off chasing Swans, but enough to give Brentford further belief they can crash into the top-two.
Then, on 89 minutes, Ayling launched an attack from inside his own penalty area and Leeds’ extra yard broke Swansea. A pass into Klich, then out to Costa on the right, gave Leeds space, allowing Costa and Ayling to advance on the Swansea area. Ayling squared for Hernandez, whose touch was good on the back of an awkward deflection. The rest of the work was done by the Spaniard and he fired beyond Woodman’s outstretched hand with expert precision.
😍 Words can’t describe this man! pic.twitter.com/Cr6Vo4RM8r
— Leeds United (@LUFC) July 12, 2020
Wild celebrations followed and Leeds can now taste Premier League football. Hernandez’s cameo against Swansea wasn’t vintage and, statistically, he was better against Stoke. However, the magnitude of this goal can’t be underestimated and it’s given Leeds a perfect platform to make the coming Thursday-Sunday doubleheader the one that counts.
Leeds will watch West Brom take on Fulham and then Brentford look to manoeuvre themselves past Preston North End. Then, it will be Leeds’ turn to react to those results as Barnsley visit Elland Road on Thursday. West Brom and Brentford play Friday and Saturday respectively, before the eyes of the Championship are back on Bielsa’s side at Derby County.
The number crunching has begun and by the start of next week Leeds could be a Premier League side. It’s in their hands and excitement around the city is building, even if the deciding games will be played in empty stadiums.
Leeds are riding that wave of expectancy well at the minute and their approach will be no different in this crucial week: run, pass, pierce and Pablo.