Is Pablo Hernandez really ‘worse’ this season?
In Pablo Hernandez’s own words, he played ‘some of the best football in my career’ in 2018/19, being undoubtedly Leeds United’s star man as they just missed out on promotion to the Premier League.
Despite the club ultimately falling short, he managed the best figures in his career in terms of goals and assists, finishing the year with 12 goals and 10 assists from 41 appearances. Brentford’s Said Benrahma was the only other player to manage double figures in both across the Championship. Remarkably, he didn’t make the final shortlist for the EFL Player of the Season, something which shocked anybody who watched him consistently.
In 2019/20, Hernandez hasn’t quite grabbed the headlines in the same way that he managed last season. He has missed 9 games through injury (he missed 12 in the whole of 18/19) and it’s not uncommon to see fan-posted preferred lineups on Twitter without the talismanic Spaniard in them.
In fact, at All Stats Aren’t We, we’ve had plenty of conversations with people who have stated that they believe Pablo to be ‘broken’ this season: that he’s clearly worse than last year and that his age has finally caught up with him.
Personally, I just don’t think that’s the case and, to illustrate why, here’s a graphic comparing his output from last season compared to this one.
For those unfamiliar with radar graphics, the outer rim cut off point is the 95th percentile of the chosen sample — in this case, Championship midfielders who have played at least 1000 minutes. Therefore, anybody who is on the outer rim may not be the league leader in that metric, but they are in the top 5 %.
As you can see, the playmaker’s performance in 19/20 is tracking very closely to his performance in 18/19. The only big drop off comes from his duel win percentage. However, it is important to note that he is making more defensive duels this season. He is slightly down on final third passing, scoring contribution and successful dribbles, but none of those are particularly far away from last season’s output and he is still posting excellent numbers in all those metrics.
It’s not surprising that Hernandez’s scoring contribution is lower than last season either, considering that last season was his most impressive season in that regard. But a contribution of 0.38 goals and assists per 90 still ranks him 7th in the league for attacking midfielders.
This is certainly not ‘broken’. So why do so many people think that?
‘Pablo couldn’t make a 5-yard pass.’
That’s a tweet we’ve been sent many times post-game. However, as the radar above shows: Hernandez’s passing accuracy wasn’t the best last season and it’s basically the same this season.
The thing to remember with Hernandez is that he’s a risk/reward player. Wyscout has a metric called ‘Smart Passes’ which are defined as passes that look to break lines. Hernandez makes the most in the league with 2.88 per 90.
These passes are not passes that come off very often. However, when they do, they can open up an opposition and lead to opportunities on goal that wouldn’t have come about otherwise. Hernandez doesn’t have a low passing accuracy because he can’t pass, he has low passing accuracy because he attempts passes other players don’t even see.
As you can see in the bar chart above — Hernandez is also by a large margin the leading midfielder in progressive passes. These are passes that move the team up the pitch. West Bromwich Albion’s Romaine Sawyers is thought of as an elite passer in the division, but he’s nowhere near Pablo’s league in this regard. Sawyer’s passing accuracy is much higher, but his passes are much more often sideways, whereas Hernandez is constantly keeping Leeds on the front foot.
At times when Hernandez is unable to find the way through, it can feel that he is frustrating to watch and wasteful. On a personal note, I can remember thinking he was trying to force the issue too much in the home game against Hull: his passing accuracy was down at 72%. But then he came up with this first-time pass to put Helder Costa through on the right-hand side which led directly to Leeds scoring the opening goal in a 2–0 win:
You have to take the rough with the smooth with top playmakers, which Hernandez certainly is at this level. He’ll go through some games where nothing he tries comes off. But he will win games for Leeds they wouldn’t win otherwise because of his vision and his willingness to take risks with his passes.
He’s being let down by his team-mates
That might sound harsh, but it’s the truth. A player is less likely to be accused of being ‘broken’ if the majority of the great chances they’re creating for the team-mates are being taken.
In 2018/19, Hernandez returned 10 assists from 11.34 xA (Expected Assists), meaning that his team-mates underperformed with the chances he created for them by just over one goal. This season Hernandez has four assists from 6.65 xA, meaning they have scored almost three goals fewer than expected from the chances he has created for them.
For reference, Matheus Pereira has nine assists so far this season but his xA is only 5.28. In fact, Kalvin Phillips has a higher xA than Pereira. With playmakers and creators, a large part of how we see them is coloured by whether their team-mates finish the chances made by them. Nobody is calling Kalvin Phillips an elite creator, but they are saying that about Pereira.
The clip above, taken from Leeds 3–2 Millwall, illustrates the issue. With four players in close proximity, Hernandez controlled the ball and made space to put an excellent ball to the back-post that Jack Harrison really should have scored.
If Leeds were a more clinical side Hernandez could have a bundle of assists already this season and there’d be no reason to have to write this article in the first place.
All that being said, Hernandez does seem to be having an ‘assist of the season’ competition with himself. I can’t imagine any other player in the Championship pulling off these two passes:
He hasn’t scored as much
An obvious one really, but when a player has the best goalscoring season of their career in their 30s, they are unlikely to follow it up with anything other than a downturn in that regard. However, in a side massively underperforming in front of goal, Hernandez is the only one of Leeds’ midfielders and forwards not to be underperforming their xG: he has four goals from 3.64xG.
On top of this, Hernandez’s shooting accuracy is actually up this season at 34% compared to 29.7% in 18/19. In that season, he overperformed his xG by 2.58. He’s also taking almost exactly the same amount of shots per 90 (2.4 last season and 2.36 this season) so it’s not because his shot volume was much higher last season.
Without being able to view post-shot xG data or locations of the shots on target, it’s hard to say for sure why he’s not scored more considering he’s hitting the target more often. We can’t know for sure whether he’s not placing his shots in the corners enough or whether he’s just been unlucky with goalkeeping. I’d hazard a guess that it’s a bit of both.
One thing that we can see, though, are the locations he’s taking his shots from (N.B these do not include headers):
One thing that stands out immediately when viewing these shots maps is the lack of shots being taken from between the penalty spot and the goal in 19/20.
In 18/19, Hernandez got in the box to support the striker more often, scoring six times from inside the penalty area (two were headers so don’t feature on these maps). One of the most notable occasions of him getting into the box to support was his winning goal in the 3–2 win at home to Millwall, where he burst into the six-yard box to slide home Tyler Roberts’ cut-back.
This season he has only scored twice from inside the box — latching onto a Klich through ball against Nottingham Forest in the second game of the season and a far-post header away at Huddersfield.
Hernandez is still one of Leeds’ most dangerous players at shooting from outside the box and is the only one in the team who has scored more than once from further than 18 yards.
So why isn’t he getting into the box as much?
I would suggest that it’s because of his positional change from right-wing to the centre. He’s starting deeper and also hanging back on the edge of the box to receive the ball should attacks break down, rather than attacking the far post from a wide position as he did last season.
That leads us nicely onto the next thing that’s commonly discussed regarding Hernandez.
He’s better on the right wing
I must admit that I’ve wondered this a few times myself and even suggested on the All Stats Aren’t We twitter account that Leeds might benefit from him returning to the right wing. He began the season there before Adam Forshaw’s injury and it’s where he spent the majority of last season.
In Saturday's game against Bristol City, Helder Costa tormented his opposing full-back, and though he still needs to add end product, he has been a constant threat for Leeds in recent weeks with Marcelo Bielsa clearly appreciating what he brings to the side. Notably, Costa has also greatly increased his numbers regarding pressing, making 11 and 9 ball recoveries in the Brentford and Bristol City games respectively, so it doesn’t look like he will be dropping out any time soon and so it’s likely Hernandez will continue in his central role.
One thing worth noting is that, whilst he might not get into the penalty area as much, he plays in largely the same way and even operates in very similar spaces on the field regardless of whether he lines up centrally or on the right.
The first of these two heat maps was taken from Saturday's game at Bristol City where Hernandez started in central midfield in Leeds’ 4–1–4–1 formation. The second is from the first home game of the season against Nottingham Forest where he played right wing in the same formation.
As you can see, whilst Hernandez dropped deeper to receive the ball against Bristol City, showing a patch of activity on the left-hand side just inside his own half, he still favours the inside right channel whether he starts on the right or not. In fact, even when he starts on right, he appears all over the pitch looking for the ball. When he starts on the right, he drifts inside and when he starts centrally, he drifts to the right.
His involvement in the game also doesn’t change regardless of position. He averages 60.72 passes per 90 on the right and 59.88 from the centre. His overall figure of 60.71 is the highest in the Leeds team and makes him the only representative in the Top 5 in the league in that metric who doesn’t play for Fulham. For those who argue ‘his legs have gone’, his passes per 90 has actually increased this season as well, so he is more involved than ever. Hernandez is the player Leeds are looking to get on the ball wherever and whenever he plays.
So Pablo isn’t broken
Hopefully, I’ve gone some way to showing you that Pablo isn’t broken and that he is really the league’s best playmaker, as he was last season.
Of course, a few more goals would show his importance to the team even more, but he remains the man who makes Leeds United’s attacking unit tick and he will surely come up with some big performances in the run-in to the end of the season. He’s shown himself to be a level above the division throughout Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure as Leeds manager with the Argentine even saying, ‘Pablo can improve me as a coach.’
Having been one of Leeds United’s greatest servants in their time in the Championship, if any one player deserves promotion to the Premier League, it’s Pablo Hernandez. Let’s hope he gets what he deserves.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
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