Bolton Wanderers 0 Leeds United 1: Peerless Pablo Hernandez, Formidable Adam Forshaw and the only way is up - The Final Word

AFTER seeing Leeds United record a fifth win in succession, the YEP's Lee Sobot looks at a few key talking points and has the Final Word on Saturday's 1-0 success at Bolton Wanderers.

By The Newsroom
Sunday, 16th December 2018, 1:19 pm
Updated Sunday, 16th December 2018, 2:03 pm
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS: Teen Leeds United stars Jack Clarke, centre, and Jamie Shackleton, left. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS: Teen Leeds United stars Jack Clarke, centre, and Jamie Shackleton, left. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

Peerless Pablo eases worries of life after Saiz

Saturday's clash at Bolton marked United's first game without Samu Saiz who is heading for Getafe with the 27-year-old wanting to return to Spain for his young family.

Saiz might not have been at his best of late but his trickery and creative spark has never been in doubt with the Spaniard a huge asset, be that as a starter or even from the bench.

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Leeds will definitely miss him and a dour game in appalling conditions was crying out for someone like Saiz during the first half.

But cometh the hour cometh the man and even without Saiz, Leeds will be just fine with Pablo Hernandez in their side.

The Spaniard's through ball to Patrick Bamford which nutmegged Jack Hobs was a thing of beauty with Hernandez now having seven assists - the most in the Championship - and seven goals to his name despite having missed a month and a half to injury.

Hernandez is quite simply integral to United's success and the quandary now is to where play him following the impending departure of Saiz.

Hernandez has excelled from the right flank so far this season - occasionally swapping to the left - and Bielsa kept the 33-year-old out wide, opting to hand Lewis Baker a start in centre midfield alongside Mateusz Klich.

That didn't work with Baker again taken off at half-time for teen wing star Jack Clarke who moved out wide as Hernandez took up the no 10 role with Gjanni Alioski on the other flank.

United quickly improved and that might be the answer with Clarke yet again excelling and starting the move that led to Patrick Bamford's winner.

We say it every week but the 18-year-old looks a huge talent and it's surely only a matter of time before he starts.

Bamford back with a bang

United shelled out in a big day to sign striker Patrick Bamford from Middlesbrough for £7m - and Saturday showed why.

One chance - just five minutes after coming on - but not one element of hesitation as the 25-year-old purposely struck a low effort first time, admitting he hadn't even aimed and just hoped to catch Ben Alnwick off guard.

That was exactly the case and as one star man departs in Saiz another returns in Bamford who is also going to be crucial to United's success and potential promotion.

The clear question now is whether or not Marcelo Bielsa opts to start Bamford instead of Kemar Roofe or as well as and perhaps play Roofe out wide or even as a no 10 which is another option - as is a change of formation and two upfront but that doesn't seem very likely and why change something that is working so well - well enough to put United top of the division.

Bamford admitted afterwards that he is ready to start games now but it is only natural that his return from a three-and-a-half month absence with a PCL knee injury will be a gradual one.

As such, you would suspect that Roofe - who definitely looks best as a striker - will still lead the line come Sunday's clash at Aston Villa but, rather like Clarke if he keeps on progressing, it will surely eventually be impossible to leave someone as lethal as Bamford out of the side.

The importance of head of performance and medicine Rob Price and his medical team at Leeds should also be highlighted with Bamford back three weeks earlier than expected and the striker racing over to thank Price in celebration of his goal - a lovely touch from a classy individual on and off the field.

Formidable Forshaw

There were several other particularly strong Leeds displays at Bolton with Pontus Jansson again an absolute rock at the back alongside Kalvin Phillips at centre-back.

The domineering Swede enjoyed the most touches, passes, headers and clearances of any player on the pitch and appears to be in the form of his life.

Leeds have now kept clean sheets in four of their last five victories which takes some doing and if United were a tad fortunate to see referee Robert Jones wave away Bolton's penalty claims as Philips tangled with Craig Noone then so be it.

Jamie Shackleton also continues to look another superb addition to the team from the Academy - the 19-year-old is excelling at right back in the absence of Luke Ayling, Gaetano Berardi and Stuart Dallas through injury - and the trick with him will be finding the best position in which to play him and when.

But just in front of the back four, Adam Forshaw again produced a superb shift in the holding midfield role, covering enormous amounts of ground and often stemming potential Bolton attacks and beginning Whites moves himself.

The importance of Forshaw's role is not an obvious one - unlike a Bamford who scores the goals or a Hernandez who provides the assists.

But definitely no less important and if it ever happens, Bielsa is going to have a serious headache if he ever gets all of his squad back fit considering Phillips too excels in that position and with skipper Liam Cooper also set to return at centre-back.

Top of the league

Other than a note on on the ridiculous weather - RealFeel minus 12 believe it or not - the final word should be about Leeds United returning to the top of the table though more significant is the fact that there is now a six-point gap back to the teams outside of the automatic promotion spots.

Derby County - who are currently fifth - could cut that gap back to five points if beating seventh-placed Nottingham Forest at Pride Park on Monday evening.

All eyes on that with a draw probably a good result for Leeds, taking into account that an eye also needs keeping on the gap back to the teams outside of the play-offs.

But after 22 games of the season there can be no doubt that this has to be seen as a genuine automatic promotion push with Leeds looking to have a strong chance of achieving that goal.

Bamford warned afterwards that United will have to keep extremely focused on the task in hand, to not get carried away, with the striker knowing all too well that a run of negative results would soon plummet United back down the table.

Leeds can also ill afford any more injuries - especially in defence - and January will be telling in terms of the business that not just United do - with not much anticipated bar probably a goalkeeper - but more to the point how significantly United's rivals strengthen.

But matters are definitely looking good at LS11 with Leeds possessing both style and substance under Bielsa and evidently able to dig in and grind out results like Saturday's win at Bolton - a game Forshaw felt Leeds would have drawn last year and he's probably right.

Sunday's trip to eighth-placed Villa looks a tricky one but a mouthwatering Christmas Eve eve treat and while Dean Smith's side have scored 43 goals - the second best in the division behind West Brom - they have also leaked in 34 compared to United's 18 (the second best in the division behind Middlesbrough with 16).

That leaky defence again cost Villa dear in Saturday's 2-2 draw with Stoke City at Villa Park and Leeds should have nothing to fear seeking a sixth win a row, especially with Jack Grealish likely to be out injured.

With home clashes against Blackburn Rovers and Hull City wrapping up the year, Bielsa's men should have prospects of not just protecting the gap back to third but extending it.

A golden opportunity is staring Leeds in the face in their bid to finally return to the Premier League after what will be a 15-year absence and it's imperative that United take the opportunity with both hands.