Pablo Hernandez, Leeds United and improving on near-perfection under Marcelo Bielsa
Perhaps the importance of Pablo Hernandez to Leeds United’s form last season was shown earlier this week.
Eagle-eyed fans spotted his absence at Thorp Arch as the club released a series of pre-season videos, leading the Whites’ support to voice their concerns at where their beloved playmaker had gone.
Hernandez, though, had been afforded a few extra days off to rest his legs after a campaign under Marcelo Bielsa where the Spaniard had flourished.
Few would believe that, in a season where he celebrated his 34th birthday, he could still be improving, yet when Hernandez jetted off back to Spain in May, he had been in the form of his life over the past nine months.
He himself admitted that he was still learning, despite his experience telling you that lessons weren’t necessarily required.
The Spaniard boasted a return of 12 goals and 12 assists from his 41 Championship appearances, which saw him step off the bench just twice under Bielsa’s guidance.
A goal return which, incidentally, claimed his best-ever season in Europe: “I scored 14 when I went to Qatar but in Europe, in big leagues, this is my best statistic,” Hernandez revealed earlier this year.
“I’m happy with this statistic but it’s more important for me that I help the team win games.”
And that he did. His omission from the EFL’s 2018-19 team or player of the year nominations will remain one of life’s great mysteries. When Pablo ticked last season, so did Bielsa’s men.
When the big moments came around in the Championship, more often than not it was Hernandez who stepped up to the mark.
“He’s the best player I ever played with,” Pontus Jansson revealed last December. And, on the evidence of the past year, you would be hard pressed to argue whether LS11 has seen a player with as much craft and skill since the club’s relegation from the top flight.
He has taken up the role of the elder statesmen in the United camp, commanding the respect of his peers through his on-field performances.
A career that has spanned 15 years already – from Valencia in La Liga to Swansea City in the Premier League with a pitstop in Qatar – he’s now beginning his third, full pre-season at Elland Road - his fourth in total - with a boss who is in his second.
“I think he can make me a better head coach,” Bielsa said last August, “because I see solutions in the decisions he is taking.”
The 63-year-old hailed him as a “complete player from every point of view”, quite the praise from a coach who has worked with some of the world’s best.
Hernandez, though, backed his manager up with some mesmerising performances which inspired United’s charge for the ‘promised land’ last term.
“I think in the difficult moments of the games the players need to take responsibility,” Hernandez stated of his influence.
“I think in some moments I need to take this responsibility because I have experience. I try to show my team-mates even in the bad moments that we need everybody.”
A leader on the pitch, but not in the conventional sense.
“He’s a real silent leader,” Bielsa added.
“He always takes responsibility for difficult things and he makes it easier for his team-mates to play. He does all of this without speaking, without saying a word.”
It is a remarkable thought that Hernandez almost left the club last summer but, after common sense prevailed, he was handed a new two-year contract.
Twelve months on and he’s returning through the Thorp Arch gates for another season with the same aim as the last.
Leeds isn’t in his blood nor is it his city - that honour falls to Castellon - yet United fans felt his tears at Brentford on Easter Monday and again against Derby County at Elland Road as if he were their own.
“Pablo deserved to finish first or second,” his coach stated in the aftermath of the Griffin Park defeat. “He and the whole team, but especially him.”
As his football career reaches its twilight years, he has the difficult task of improving on near-perfection.
United will be reliant on Hernandez next season for craft and guile but, in their summer transfer targets, have identified the need for him to be able to share the load.
He, after all, won’t be around forever. And nor will Bielsa, the man who has brought the best out of so many at Leeds, including United’s very own magic man on the right.