There is more in Leeds United’s armoury than Pablo Hernandez alone but a night like Wednesday, when his skill elevates the game around him, leaves the impression that this season rests fairly heavily on his shoulders.
A 2-0 win over Ipswich Town threw up several performances of note – Kalvin Phillips as a serene central defender and Adam Forshaw putting his hand in the air for more than half-an-hour off the bench – but the presence of Hernandez tackled the deficiencies Leeds were trying to fix.
It was bothering Marcelo Bielsa before Ipswich’s visit that his side were becoming wasteful from the wings and tepid in front of goal. Wednesday painted a tidier picture. On his first start in eight games, Hernandez served up two assists – the first a dream of a cross from the right – and but for the inside of a post and a fingertip save from Bartosz Bialkowski, Leeds would have registered their biggest win of the season.
It is hard for Bielsa to know how much he can ask of Hernandez. The midfielder is 33 and prone to problems with his hamstrings. They have already sidelined him for half of United’s Championship’s fixtures so far. But the club’s return to the top of the division and Hernandez’s part in it singled him out as a player who Bielsa can barely afford to be without.
Forshaw has been around the block often enough in the Championship to appreciate Hernandez’s value.
“He’s an example to everyone,” the ex-Middlesbrough midfielder said. “He’s 33 now but his work rate is phenomenal.
“With his creativity he’s a little magician at times and I think we’re going to need him for the rest of the season.”
Bielsa expected to depend as regularly on Forshaw but Forshaw’s campaign has been a bit-part one since he broke a foot bone in July. The rise of Mateusz Klich pinned him to the bench and Bielsa has not been tempted to break up Klich’s central partnership with Samuel Saiz.
Saiz, though, looked jaded on Wednesday and was replaced by Forshaw inside an hour. The first raft of substitutions made by Bielsa – Forshaw for Saiz, Tom Pearce for Jack Harrison – injected flamboyance into United’s football and left Ipswich clinging on to a semi-respectable scoreline.
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Forshaw’s attacking play influenced the closing stages and it took the reactions of Bialkowski to stop him curling in his first Leeds goal 10 minutes from time. His display, contracted with that of Saiz, gave Bielsa something to consider before tomorrow’s meeting with Nottingham Forest.
Saiz’s talent is not in question but he has carried a creative burden in the absence of Hernandez, and Forshaw, who is yet to start a league game, showed a fresher pair of legs. Bielsa’s opinion of him was made clear by United’s head coach describing Forshaw as “the best player in the team” before his injury.
“It’s up to the manager,” Forshaw said. “I’m knocking on the door and I’m three months on now since my injury.
“I came back pretty early and I feel really fit and sharp again, almost back to the level I was at before I got the injury.
“I want to help the team as much as I can and I’m a player so I want to be on the pitch. If I am to start then I’ll be made up. I’ve bided my time and hopefully I can participate a little bit more now.”
Forshaw and Hernandez, to coin a phrase, do what it says on the side of their tins. In the case of Phillips, Bielsa has turned a 22-year-old who grew up in Leeds’ academy as an out-and-out central midfielder into a holding player capable of doubling as the middle of three centre-backs, as Bielsa asked him to against Ipswich.
The visitors offered little in attack but Phillips blended alert defensive work with a telling rate of passes, spreading the ball from deep and taking a grip as Ipswich’s resistance faded badly after half-time.
“It’s a bit of a masterstroke and I think Kalvin would say the same,” Forshaw said. “He’s been surprised but from day one in training that’s where he played. (Bielsa) didn’t ever play him anywhere else.
“He was magnificent – spraying it left and right – and one thing that really suits him in that position is that he’s physical as well.
“He’s got a lot of strength, he’s a good size and he’s still a young lad. He’s playing well and I think all of the lads were mentally switched on for this one. The manager gave us a good talk before the game and it paid dividends.”