THE signing of Samuel Saiz prompted a changing of the guard at Leeds United as Pablo Hernandez gave up the position both players prefer to occupy – but responsibility still rests on the elder of the Spaniards.
“I know my role,” Hernandez always says, and never moreso than when clouds gather over the club’s results.
Leeds are a squad of relatively few veterans and in the worst of their form this season, Hernandez tried where he could to act his age and spread some experience. The fillip of wins over Middlesbrough and Barnsley last week was not entirely inspired by him but a fightback of sorts can be traced to the introduction of Hernandez and Kemar Roofe midway through Leeds’ appearance at Brentford on November 4.
Brentford won that game and did so deservedly but a beleaguered Thomas Christiansen clung onto a second half in which Leeds, against the run of the first 45 minutes, threatened to nick a result. Hernandez, who came off the bench at half-time, kept his place against Middlesbrough after the international break and had a hand in both goals in a 2-1 win.
At Barnsley on Saturday his subtle influence and disciplined defending supplemented the damage done by strikes from Saiz and Gjanni Alioski.
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Leeds were beaten badly at Wolverhampton Wanderers in between Middlesbrough and Barnsley and it would be going some, ahead of tonight’s home game against Aston Villa, to say a corner has been comprehensively turned. Hernandez, however, believes that it has – “the team have recovered the spirit I think” – and the 32-year-old can take some credit for lancing the boil of seven defeats in nine.
I think for me the best position is number 10 but I’m very happy as a winger. The manager speaks to us all and we have free mobility. We can change position during the game. The feeling is good.Leeds United’s Pablo Hernandez
“At Brentford I went on the pitch at half-time with (Kemar) Roofe and the team changed not only the game but the attitude,” he said. “We had the possibility to win the game and two mistakes meant we lost it but it was still important. It’s an example.
“When you are on the bench you need to be ready. You need to be ready to give the team other things when they need them. When I’m on the bench, yes I’m frustrated and not happy, but when I go on the pitch I have to give 100 per cent and change the game.
“I always say I know my role. I’m one of the oldest players in the squad and I’m an example. I try to give the best of me on the training ground, in the dressing room and in the games.
“Obviously the game against Wolves was not a good result but it was difficult and with the red card (shown to Ronaldo Vieira), we didn’t have any chance. From the other two games, the feeling is very good.
“Against Middlesbrough I helped the team with one goal and one assist and in the last game the team played very good against Barnsley. We’ve recovered the spirit and we’re in a good way. Now this (tonight’s meeting with Villa) is a big test.”
Hernandez said he had been “very impressed” with the way Leeds’ camaraderie held together as points were spilling game after game. Saiz was a flicker of optimism throughout, wholly unrattled by the form.
Leeds signed him from Huesca as competition for Hernandez who, to the naked eye, was pushed too far by a 46-game Championship schedule last season and overused in the run-in. Saiz won that fight for position quickly, usurping Hernandez at No 10, but Thomas Christiansen tried to integrate both of them. For a month-and-a-half, and more recently against Boro and Barnsley, their telepathy worked.
Saiz speaks little or no English and is what Hernandez calls “a typical Spanish player”. “I like this and I’m happy when I play with him,” he said. “It’s easy for me to understand his football and I think it’s the same with him. It’s easy for us to have a combination.”
Saiz’s return of nine goals and multiple assists has closed the book on Christiansen’s choice of options at number 10 but there is versatility and movement among United’s forward line and the club’s head coach did not want Hernandez to think of himself as an out-and-out left winger.
“Last year I was playing number 10 always and this year Samu plays in this position,” Hernandez said. “I think for me the best position is number 10 but I’m very happy as a winger. When I was young in Valencia I played in this position. The manager speaks to us all and we have free mobility. We can change position during the game. The feeling is good.”
As a result, no fewer than 19 league goals have come from United’s midfield.
“We play for this,” Hernandez said. “We play good football and not negative football. This philosophy helps the midfielders to arrive into the box and have chances to score.”
Villa’s handling of that area of the pitch will be crucial this evening. Christiansen previously described Wolves as the strongest team in the Championship – an opinion supported by the evidence of Leeds’ 4-1 beating at Molineux – and claimed yesterday that Villa, despite their surge into the Championship’s top six, were not quite on the same level.
As is traditional in the Championship, Leeds are due to play six times before the transfer window opens in January. “It’s an important period,” Hernandez said. “You have the chance to win three or four in a row and in a short time you can go up in the table.
“It’s difficult but we’re playing at home and we played good in the last game. The team have recovered the spirit I think. We have the confidence that we can win.”
In Spain, football at Christmas is never like this, but he likes the English alternative.
“In Spain you have a break,” he said. “You don’t play. You’re last game is on December 22 or 23 and the next game is in January. You have time with your family and you rest.
“It’s different here but I like English football in this respect. Christmas is for the family and the kids – and they want to watch football.”