It is telling that Leeds United’s reliance on Pablo Hernandez last season was felt not only by observers of the club but in the dressing room too.
“A lot had to go through Pablo,” said Pontus Jansson on Saturday, highlighting the change in a squad who now have more strings to their bow.
The spread of creativity on offer to Thomas Christiansen is such that Gjanni Alioski, his Macedonian winger, took in Saturday’s 5-0 rout of Burton Albion from the bench and form is no guarantee of a place in his team.
The availability of a fresh Alioski for tonight’s game against Birmingham City does not easily answer the question of who Christiansen should drop.
Hernandez is the eldest of United’s outfield players, a creative mind who was stretched and overused as Leeds reached for the play-offs in the second half of last season, but his masterful takedown of Burton told Christiansen that he has lead in his pencil and won’t go quietly.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga – the club’s two-goal debutant – took the man-of-the-match award on Saturday but Leeds’ rhythm came from Hernandez: one goal, six key passes, 89 touches and a free role which baffled Burton’s defence.
Now 32, Hernandez tells a story about the current method of squad-building at Elland Road. He is the only outfield footballer over 30 and, for a couple of hours before last month’s transfer deadline as Leeds released goalkeeper Rob Green and signed Andy Lonergan as his replacement, he was United’s oldest footballer full stop.
Leeds have built a team for this season in the knowledge that the spine of it might serve them for several years to come.
“I know I’m the oldest player but my feeling is that I’m young,” Hernandez said. “The important thing for me is that I’m an example for the young players.
“I always play 100 per cent, I always work on the training ground 100 per cent. Because for young players, if they watch older players not running or not working then it’s a mistake. This is my role. I know that.”
When Leeds signed another Spaniard, Samuel Saiz, from Huesca in July, he was touted as the cog which was missing last season: an alternative who would avoid the need to flog Hernandez at number 10 indefinitely. Faced with the dilemma of which playmaker to use, Christiansen has followed his own mind and accommodated both, fielding Saiz behind a lone striker and playing – or at least starting – Hernandez on the left.
On Saturday, Christiansen’s line of three in support of Lasogga were fluid to the point of outright abandon: dropping deep, running long, switching positions and drifting out wide, all the while with enough intelligence to monitor each other’s movement. Burton were peppered by 30 shots on goal and lucky to concede only five.
“We hold our hands up and move on,” said a philosophical Stephen Warnock, Burton’s captain.
Christiansen was a Spain international as a player, a Danish-born striker who married a Spaniard and took up Spanish citizenship in Barcelona. Most of his backroom team hail from Spain. Garry Monk had assistant Pep Clotet on his staff last season but Leeds maintained a domestic feel under Monk; organised, rigid but less adventurous than Christiansen’s side are making themselves look.
Monk was responsible for signing Hernandez a year ago, bringing his former Swansea City colleague back to England from Qatar. Hernandez had only just earned an extension to his contract in May when Monk resigned from his job as head coach and left to take charge of Middlesbrough.
“I arrived here because Garry called me but it’s football and football sees continuous change,” Hernandez said. “When he left it wasn’t good for me but I had a contract here and I was happy to continue with the club and a new gaffer.
“I’m very happy with (Christiansen) because he knows my style. His style is very Spanish because he’s a Spanish gaffer and all his staff are Spanish. I think this helps me to show my best football.”
By the standards of the EFL, United’s squad is contracted to the hilt. Many of their new signings received four-year contracts and existing players have been handed lengthy extensions over the summer. Hernandez stands out as having less than 12 months on his deal, a reflection of his age and his time of life.
“I have one year more but I don’t think too much about this,” he said. “When a player thinks too much about the future, his contract, he can’t give his all on the pitch.
“More important for me is to play, play good, and help the team to go to the Premier League. I’m sure that if I play good the club will offer me a new contract in the future. It’s more important for me to play. In this moment it’s not easy getting into the first XI.”
The influx of 16 news signings has nonetheless failed to crowd Hernandez out. If anything, Christiansen is as enthusiastic about his ability as Monk was. He is one of only four players who have started every league game so far, amassing 14 points and giving Leeds the chance to move top of the Championship against Birmingham tonight.
“When I arrived here I’d played in the Premier League and the first division in Spain but I felt this club was a big club,” Hernandez said.
“It’s a Premier League club and this club deserve to play in the Premier League. I hope it will play there in the future – and hopefully next year.”