Leeds United: Hernandez anxious not to waste excellent start to season

Leeds United are a good example of why the Championship table after a handful of games is nothing to write home about.

Thursday, 23rd August 2018, 7:00 am
Leeds United's Pablo Hernandez.

The club topped it in mid-September last season and appeared there again after Tuesday night’s draw at Swansea City but Marcelo Bielsa saw the rankings for what they were. “It doesn’t mean a lot,” he said.

Pablo Hernandez, who earned Leeds a point in Swansea with an 80th-minute equaliser against his old club, was in situ 12 months ago when Leeds were climbing towards the summit of the league.

He was also on the front line when it all went badly wrong after Christmas, and again when Leeds – under Garry Monk – finished narrowly beneath the play-off positions in 2017. He and the club know the depression of peaking too soon.

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Marcelo Bielsa.

Hernandez, though, does not want to disregard the unbeaten start which has given Bielsa wind in his sails. After three wins and a draw from four games, Leeds already have something to feed on and defend. Hernandez called for some realism about the number of fixtures ahead of United – “don’t go mad and keep it simple” – but said he is anxious not to waste an encouraging step forward.

“We can take confidence from these games and now we’re top of the league,” he said after Tuesday’s 2-2 draw in Wales. “This is always important, when you see the table and you see your team at the top. It gives energy and it gives confidence.

“But if we don’t continue with this then these games are for nothing. What’s more important is don’t go mad and keep it simple by taking another step forward. Then you continue in this position. If we don’t keep a position like this after the final game of the season, it’s just like last year or two years ago.”

Leeds, with Bielsa guiding them enthusiastically down his tactical road, have turned in a spectrum of performances in two-and-a-half weeks of competitive football: accomplished hammerings of Stoke City and Derby County, a tactical joust with Rotherham United last weekend and a display of backbone at Swansea. Swansea took Leeds on with a talented front four, orchestrated by former Manchester City midfielder Bersant Celina, and Bielsa’s players were twice asked to recover from Oli McBurnie goals.

Swansea City's Bersant Celina gets past Leeds United's Luke Ayling.

Hernandez, who played more than 60 times for Swansea between 2012 and 2014 and was making his first appearance at the Liberty Stadium since moving on, forced a draw 10 minutes from time by finishing off incisive play from Patrick Bamford, directing a low and true finish to the right of goalkeeper Erwin Mulder.

The 33-year-old declined to celebrate but appreciated the importance of a result which kept Leeds’ unbeaten start intact.

“It’s a good point because if you see the game it’s maybe the worst game of the season for us,” he said. “It was difficult. I think now the other teams know that we press high and always play to attack but we can come back to Leeds happy with one point.

“It was special for me. I played here for two years and I lived good moments with this club. I won the Capital One Cup and I played in the Europa League. It’s a special stadium for me but I’m happy that I scored for my team, for Leeds United, to take a point. I didn’t celebrate because I think this is the way for me to show the fans my respect.”

Hernandez earned a new two-year contract from Leeds last season, less than two months before his previous deal was due to expire, and he is Bielsa’s kind of player: diligent, technically gifted, attack-minded and reliable in moments where Leeds needed a bit of magic. The invention was all Bamford’s on Tuesday, a quick turn and break down the left wing, but Hernandez came in cleverly off the right to bury a low cross with a deft touch.

The Spaniard turned 33 in April but, regardless of talk of aging legs, has played in every minute of the Championship season so far. He is likely to keep his place at Norwich City on Saturday, though Bielsa’s decisive substitutions on Tuesday – removing Kalvin Phillips after 28 minutes and Gjanni Alioski after 45 – were a sign that changes will come at Carrow Road.

“Obviously when you play four or five games in two weeks, the legs are going to be a little tired,” Hernandez said. “But I’m feeling good, my fitness is good and I work hard. I work hard on my recovery and I try to take in food that is good for my body. If the coach wants, I’m ready for the next game.”

Bielsa’s players were back in training at Thorp Arch yesterday afternoon and have been laden this week with round trips to south Wales and Norfolk, both in the space of five days. Biesla said Tuesday’s draw was a “fair result” and a return for four points from back-to-back games at Swansea and Norwich would be valuable.

“Norwich always have good teams,” Hernandez said. “It’s not easy to win there but we have the same mentality home or away. We always go to win games. We go to take the three points, we always try to attack the goal.

“We try to play high and sometimes, like at Swansea, we don’t get it all right. Sometimes we slip up in defence. But what’s important in these moments and when we don’t play our best game is that we fight and we continue to try to score. This was a good example. We went behind two times and we came back into the game.”