Marcelo Bielsa talked at great length this week about the problems his team have been having recently, but now we know he could have saved Salim Lamrani a lot of time, trouble and translation by just saying, ‘Pablo Hernandez has been injured.’
There was more to this victory than that, and the win was hard won, but my god Pablo’s my god when he plays this good. He wasn’t even at his best; after the game Bielsa seemed impressed he’d played so well while still unfit, and although Hernandez was slide tackling well into stoppage time he wasn’t dominant, because he didn’t have to be. Intelligence is important, and Hernandez’s mind lifts him above the rest of this division, even if his occasionally weary legs can’t carry him as they once did. Pablo’s brain has taken charge of his body, telling it when is the right time to do, and when is the right time to wait.
His brain has that effect on the whole team. The second goal came from one of several short corners that Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski sprang upon Ipswich Town, depending on how Pablo fancied their chances. On this occasion he fancied cutting the ball back to the edge of the area, with a helpful dummy by Kalvin Phillips to help its journey. The player behind Phillips, Liam Cooper, is often derided by Leeds fans as unhelpful dummy, but one of Bielsa’s favourite maxims is that a cut back is one of the best ways of giving a player the chance to score, and Cooper proved the rule, lashing the ball into the roof of the net with his wrong foot. It was a very good finish after good positioning, a goal a centre-half should be proud of, and Cooper celebrated ferociously, as if he was.
Phillips, who let the ball run through his legs, was also a centre-half in this game, alongside Gaetano Berardi until he was injured, then Luke Ayling. This was standard Bielsa — when a team attacks with two, he defends with three — but done to a better standard than so far this season. Leeds have struggled against front-twos so far, with Phillips bearing the brunt; Bielsa hasn’t been able to fine tune the spine when using Phillips so deep, to connect him to Mateusz Klich and Samu Saiz. But against Ipswich it worked, although against Ipswich it helped that Ipswich were rubbish.
I don’t know how Ipswich fans feel, but I missed Mick McCarthy’s presence for this fixture; of all the old-school managers in the Football League, Big Mick Mack has always seemed like the most open-minded towards the new, and had he been testing his wits against Bielsa this week I’m sure he would have done it with humour and grace. The downside to that is he probably would have found a way to win, so we should be grateful to Paul Hurst for assuming filling his squad with League One players and making umpteen changes from his last match would end with anything other than a whimpering defeat and questions about his job. Perhaps McCarthy, a childhood Leeds fan who is not reticent about supporting us in adulthood, was able to enjoy it too.
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No matter how bad Ipswich were Phillips made sure he played superbly, taking responsibility as a deep platform for feeding the players in front of him. He did his bit as a defender, too; whenever he successfully gets in a block like a proper centre-half, or heads a cross clear, I catalogue each interception as proof: he can do this, he really can do this.
United’s second goal allowed him to step out from the back because the game became easy for Leeds, but it’s worth remembering that the first half was not easy at all. Until Kemar Roofe scored, Ipswich were marginally the better team, in the sense that they weren’t playing better, but like other sides we’ve faced lately they were smothering Leeds and preparing a sucker punch; Leeds gave up several good chances in the first half, and Bailey Peacock-Farrell put more good, unspectacular saves in his account. Neither Jack Harrison nor Samu Saiz could get near the ball.
Pablo Hernandez could, though, and it was a good pass from Saiz, through Luke Ayling’s underlapping run, that gave him it to set up United’s opener. It was Pablo’s aura that prevented two Ipswich defenders from approaching him, his vision that identified Roofe running between the centre-halves, and his technique that lofted the ball onto Roofe’s forehead. It was a good finish, but Hernandez had engineered the chance so well that Roofe couldn’t miss.
That’s the difference Hernandez makes. Bielsa spoke earlier in the season about Hernandez making the players around him better players, about making Bielsa a better coach, and you could see that working against Ipswich. He makes everybody’s work easier with control. Big switching passes are a key part of United’s game, and it’s incredibly helpful to have Hernandez on the wing to trap a long pass and start a move, instead of fumbling and letting the ball run out of play. Small things in football make big differences, and being really good at football is one of them.
Bielsa’s substitutions also made a difference, that might become interesting in the next ‘cycle’ of matches, to use his term. Saiz and Harrison were taken off well before the hour, Saiz after completing twelve passes, and Harrison four; in that time Klich had completed 35 and Hernandez twenty. In the half-hour remaining Klich moved forward to Saiz’s position and completed thirteen passes; Alioski took over from Harrison and completed eleven.
Those numbers shouldn’t be taken as significant, because formations, exact positions and phases of play altered the context; Leeds were knocking the ball about for fun in a fifteen minute spell of olés and keepball after the second goal. But the numbers are a useful reckoner of influence, and although Ipswich were beaten by this time, Forshaw was better at being Klich than the already very good Klich — now with Phillips alongside him, instead of in defence — while as a number ten Klich added extra stature, while he still managed to fling his arms up and moan when he didn’t get a pass. Mention should go to Tom Pearce, too, who came on at left-back to allow Alioski to move forward. During the international break it was reported that Bielsa was the only domestic manager to watch the England U20s win over Italy, featuring ninety minutes of Pearce, (and half an hour of Ronaldo Vieira), suggesting Bielsa is keeping a closer watch on him than sometimes seems; like Jack Clarke recently, he made a refreshing and energetic difference, overlapping cleverly to help Alioski.
I wonder if Bielsa would like to make more use of Pearce, Clarke, Jamie Shackleton, Ryan Edmondson. While there’s clearly a pecking order, reinforced by Thorp Arch’s regimented separation of the first team, he hasn’t been afraid to use the younger players — less than the romantics would like, but enough to make them feel like viable options rather than last resorts. Bielsa said during the week that coming off the bench is the best idea for Jack Clarke’s development; maybe he thinks that to use them all in the first team at once would be risking too much. But perhaps Bielsa could be persuaded to stick around to see how these kids turn out.
In the meantime, Pablo Hernandez is proof that players at the other end of the spectrum bring their own rewards. Hernandez doesn’t look like a young man playing football; he looks like a footballer for whom age has brought beauty to his feet and wisdom to his brain. People talk about poets or painters having a ‘late period’ in their career, where all they’ve learned from a life of exuberant expression and experimenting is distilled into work that shakes off the inhibitions of the younger artist. There is a sense of that with Marcelo Bielsa, returning aged 63 to a job that more closely resembles his first job at Newell’s in his thirties than any he has had inbetween. But before him this is Pablo Hernandez’s late period, and this season might yet be his masterpiece. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)