Pablo Hernandez: Marcelo Bielsa’s False Seven

“Hernandez, as Saturday’s 1–1 draw with Forest demonstrated, is burdened at Elland Road by a constant reliance on his skill and the challenge of perfecting a distinct role: that of the false 7" — Phil Hay

What does Pablo Hernandez do exactly?

No one would doubt that he’s Leeds’ primary creative impetus: so far this season, he has created 12 chances for Leeds, getting two assists with one particularly stand out: a fantastic through ball to Dallas in the league game against Stoke.

He’s not a classic winger — a lot of his chance creation comes from a central or inside right position where he tends to drift in. He’s not often going to be found driving towards the byline — his 34 years have put paid to that. Nor will he often be found hoisting crosses into the box from the sideline.

But then, he’s not a classic number ten either. He not exclusively dropped in a central area and allowed to float. He is seldom tasked with the aim of finding pockets of space to exploit between the midfield and defence of the opposition.

Of course, the former Valencia midfielder will do elements proper to both of these positions. But he will do this without actually ever fulfilling the template of either.

Perhaps, then, the Spaniard is, as Phil Hay recently titled it, a ‘false seven’. But what could this possibly mean?

Seven from Nine

To understand the role of the false seven, it might help to understand a similar but much more familiar role to football: the false nine.

Typically, the false nine is a player who starts the game in a traditional striker’s position but plays the game almost as a decoy striker. They drop deeper into midfield areas, to disrupt the shape of the opposition. This movement is designed to draw the opposition centre back out of position, leaving space for midfielders to exploit.

Instead of the false nine being the focal point of the team in an attacking sense, it is the space they leave behind by vacating their position that becomes the focal point, allowing teammates to exploit it in the search for a goal.

The false nine, then, is more of a creative force rather than a goal-scoring forward.

When it comes to a false seven, what would the distinctions be to the standard seven position?

A conventional number seven is already a creative outlet in the team: getting out wide, to the byline and delivering balls for the forwards on the team to attack.

Alternatively, a classic seven could more or less of a goal-scorer depending on how they attack the box: directly or from wide areas.

When it comes to the false nine, we saw that the falsity of the role impacts the way the player relates to the space around them. For Hernandez’s false seven, drifting inside from the right wing allows him to vacate the right wing space for an overlapping full-back or another midfielder to attack.

The freedom this gives to Stuart Dallas, for example, is demonstrated by the passing combinations between Hernandez and Dallas, who has been the right-back so far this season. Leeds have completed 2386 passes in their 5 league games so far and over 5.5% of those passes were made between Hernandez and Dallas (133).

The average position of Hernandez in the 5 league games so far demonstrates how he drifts inside to central areas of the pitch and fellow attacking players are almost attracted to his position in order to play off him and create positions for him to create for them.

Average Positions for Stoke
Average Positions for Wigan
Average Positions for Brentford
Average Positions for Bristol City
Average Positions for Forest

These average position maps give a good sense of how Hernandez manipulates space for the corresponding full-back to attack. In each case, the Spaniard has opened up a channel in front of his teammate that is ripe for exploitation.

The average positions also express the stark difference in roles between Leeds’ two wingers. As a rule, Harrison stays much wider than Hernandez.

This allows the team to overload to isolate, using Pablo Hernandez as a focal point for their build-up before switching the ball quickly to Harrison so that he can isolate himself against an opposition full-back.

In the one game where this hasn’t been the case, against Stoke in the league, where Bielsa set his side up in a 3–5–2. Harrison played as almost a second striker, more advanced than Bamford on average.

To counter the space this opened up on the left, Hernandez played almost like a centre midfielder: his average position was inside the centre circle.

A Modern-Day Creative

But Hernandez isn’t simply creative in his space creation; there is also a proactive aspect to his role in the false seven role.

Mateusz Klich has been Leeds’ best chance creator so far this season —being the second-best creator in the Championship — and so a comparison of the way the two create chances is instructive.

Ironically, given their positions, Klich is more productive from wide areas. As things stand, Klich successfully completes just over one cross per game, attempting 2.81. Hernandez, however, attempts 1.61 crosses per game and completes just a quarter of them.

Here is a visual representation of where each player’s crosses come from:

Representation of crosses from Klich (White) and Hernandez (Pink). Successful crosses in green and unsuccessful in orange.

As you can see, Klich and Hernandez are making crosses from similar areas. However, Klich delivers a higher number of them more accurately. This is in part due to Klich’s tendency to drift out wide when Leeds are enjoying periods of high possession. With less pressure on him, his crosses have a better chance of being accurate.

For Hernandez, on the other hand, his crosses tend to come from the Spaniard running in behind and having to take more difficult first-time efforts.

When comparing other passing stats Hernandez comes out on top in the majority of areas:

Hernandez seemingly plays passes into dangerous areas more regularly than Klich. However, Klich’s passes create more dangerous situations than Hernandez’s do and that is reflected in the key pass numbers.

Klich has almost twice as many key passes per game than Hernandez which could suggest that he is a more efficient creator of chances than Hernandez is.

That notwithstanding, one thing Pablo is lauded for on the pitch is his vision and ability to pick out an incisive pass. One way to compare Klich’s ability to do this is by looking at his smart passes.

The definition Wyscout applies to a smart pass is:

“There has to be some idea in the pass, something creative, when the player is cutting the lines and winning some advantage for his teammates with this pass, leading them in good position to attack. The pass should be between 2–3 opposite players.”

So far this season, Hernandez has played 21 ‘smart passes’ and Klich has only played 5. Hernandez is also only 1 of 3 players to have completed a smart pass in the league. Almost 40% of his smart passes this season have been accurate. None of Klich’s have.

Last season, Hernandez played the most smart passes in the Championship with 132, which works out at 3.14 per 90 minutes. Samuel Saiz had 2.24 p90: the 4th highest. The second most was the 102 of Norwich’s Marco Steipermann, followed by 97 from Emi Buendia before a huge drop to Harry Wilson’s 69.

This just goes to show how dominant Hernandez was in this area. He was the second most accurate, completing just over half of them. Klich played the 15th most smart passes last year with 52, completing 36.5% of them.

For a point of comparison: in Europe’s top 5 leagues, only Messi played for smart passes than Hernandez and nobody played more progressive passes than him last season.

So where Hernandez is creating chances through space creation, he is also benefiting from his freedom to drift into more central areas and play creator as well as helping others perform the role.

Conclusion

Marcelo Bielsa has said that Hernandez made him a better coach which is high praise indeed.

It’s clear to see that the midfielder has the highest functioning football brain in the Leeds’ squad and this allows his teammates to thrive as much as him.

He does this in two ways: from manipulating space so that his teammates can plunder it; and from exploiting the space created by his teammates so that he can put the ball through into dangerous areas.

As things stand, Bielsa has set his team up in such a way to benefit from Pablo Hernandez’s unique skill-set.

After games like the Swansea fixture at the weekend, it’s easy to call for Hernandez to be dropped.

But so much of what he does that is good for the team goes unnoticed. If he isn’t creating space, he’s being watched carefully by the opposition, occupying them in such a way that prevents them from involving themselves in build-up so much.

The false seven, then, is an important aspect to the Leeds United set-up. And there are few people who could play the role so well as Pablo Hernandez.

Joe Morgan can be found on Twitter at White Spy.

If you would be interested to write a piece for All Stats Aren’t We, get in touch!

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