Elland Road is an interesting spectacle without fans and one that you wouldn’t want to get used to. However, watching Leeds United sweep Fulham aside on Saturday offered a unique insight into the Championship’s most impressive outfit.
Leeds were 3-0 winners in a game dubbed their biggest of the season, but a convincing scoreline doesn’t tell the whole story: Marcelo Bielsa cut an agitated figure in the home dugout for the opening 45 minutes, whilst Victor Orta kicked and headed every ball from the West Stand box.
Patrick Bamford had given Leeds a 10th minute lead, but Fulham were the better side in the first-half. Anthony Knockaert and Aleksandar Mitrovic tested Illan Meslier’s reflexes, whilst Scott Parker and his staff were adamant they should’ve been awarded a chance to draw level from the penalty spot.
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Bielsa had seen enough after just 45 minutes and hauled his goalscorer off despite Leeds’ lead. Bamford had broken the deadlock, but balls into him were repelling and the usual fluid transition we see from midfield to attack was absent.
Replacing him was the returning Pablo Hernandez, who brought a calm head and tipped the biggest game of the season in Leeds’ favour. The 35-year-old was the link that was missing in the first-half, with Tyler Roberts – moved into a more advanced position – thriving where Bamford had struggled.
Within 26 second-half minutes, Leeds had the points in the bag. Ezgjan Alioski doubled the lead with a clever finish and Jack Harrison had benefitted from Hernandez’s brilliance to make the score 3-0 on 71 minutes.
Hernandez’s cameo from the bench changed the game and whilst Ben White’s handling of Mitrovic, despite a crashing assault on the defender’s jaw early on, was impressive, the afternoon wouldn’t have been as comfortable as it was without Bielsa turning to his trusty 35-year-old.
Here, we assess Hernandez’s impressive numbers…
After a good period of the first-half saw Fulham piling it on Leeds looking for an equaliser, Hernandez was the calming influence that the Whites needed; never shrinking from the challenge of receiving the ball in tight situations and nearly always managing to find a teammate as the Whites began to frustrate Parker’s side.
Then, of course, there was the game’s standout moment as Hernandez sent Harrison racing down the right wing to really put the game beyond Fulham. The pass he played, to produce an assist of such quality, isn’t easy, but it was hardly surprising to see such a special player do it effortlessly.
Waving his hands frantically as Leeds snuffed out more Fulham build-up play, Hernandez was found by Luke Ayling. He’d seen the space, he’d seen the run and, without a moment of hesitation, Hernandez audaciously clipped the ball in-behind Joe Bryan, allowing Harrison to close in on Marek Rodak’s goal and dispatch under Parker’s keeper.
🐐 Simply breathtaking pic.twitter.com/NDGeK0HAaV
— Leeds United (@LUFC) June 29, 2020
That was one of two shot assists Hernandez managed to produce in his time on the field, but it really was his eagerness to get on the ball and regain possession higher up the field that changed things.
Speaking post-match, Bielsa assessed the decision to introduce Hernandez for Bamford and push Roberts into attack, saying: “When Pablo came onto the pitch he co-ordinated well with the movement with Tyler.
“And in the other half, when we recovered the ball in the second half we found Pablo. Pablo with the ball gave long options to our team with his accurate passes.”
Hernandez played 10 passes into the final third – six of which were successful – and received 11 passes in in the second-half. By the time he was replaced by Jamie Shackleton in stoppage time, he’d accrued a 76% pass success rate. Impressive given the area he looked to get Bielsa’s side playing in.
Bielsa knows Hernandez is a luxury player, but he doesn’t duck out of his work without the ball. Two interceptions were made and Hernandez recovered possession five times, with four of those coming in the Fulham half, further underlining a switch in momentum that got Leeds playing higher up the pitch.
On another afternoon, 35,000 fans would have given Hernandez the send off he deserved as Shackleton replaced him on 92 minutes, but as it is in this difficult time, that task fell to Orta: up on his feet to salute the breathtaking individual.
He didn’t need to kick and head every ball in the second-half, Hernandez was there to do it all.