Taking the game by the scuff of the neck is a particularly English phrase but Pablo Hernandez’s performance at Middlesbrough translated it into Spanish. Kalvin Phillips wrote the headlines with his late, late equaliser but Hernandez was the instigator in a second half which danced to his tune.
Marcelo Bielsa needed someone to give Leeds United convincing direction at the interval and Middlesbrough drawing first blood in the 47th minute did not stop Hernandez establishing control. Bielsa said the midfielder brought “calm and serenity” to the pitch. Boro encountered a player who was never off the ball.
Hernandez watched the first half at The Riverside from the bench, only the second time that Bielsa has declined to start him when the 33-year-old was fit to play, but his statistics at full-time were remarkable: more touches than all but three players on the pitch, more passes than all but two and more in both respects than anyone in Middlesbrough’s side. Hernandez made 58 passes in the second half. No-one in Tony Pulis’ line-up, other than goalkeeper Darren Randolph, attempted more than 30.
Leeds benefited from Hernandez’s precision too, with nine of 11 long-distance passes finding a teammate as the former Valencia winger stretched the play cleverly in search of an equaliser. The pressure had the desired effect when Kalvin Phillips nicked a 1-1 draw 10 minutes into injury-time.
Bielsa, who fielded Jack Clarke ahead of Hernandez before replacing Clarke at the break, said: “Pablo makes the game more fluid.
“He has the skill to put the ball in the zone where it’s more difficult for the opponent to recover it. He has a very clear reading of the game and when you have games like this one, his calm and serenity help us a lot.”
In its entirety, the balance of the game was in keeping with the way Leeds and Middlesbrough have played all season: United controlling 69 per cent of possession and producing 503 passes to Boro’s 232.
Tony Pulis, though, was pleased with his side’s response to a midweek FA Cup defeat at Newport County and a subsequent travel debacle which saw them arrive back on Teesside around 7am on Wednesday morning.
“Overall I’m absolutely delighted with the players, especially when you think the lads didn't get back home until quarter to seven on Wednesday morning,” he said. “To put a performance in like that was fantastic.”