Searching for Pablo’s Successor: Introduction

Pablo Hernandez has been a magnificent servant of Leeds United since he signed for the club, initially on loan, in the 2016/17 season. Many would call him Leeds’ greatest signing in their time outside of the Premier League and certainly since they came back from League One a decade ago.

However, it seems that if the conclusion of the 19/20 season does see Leeds United promoted — be that through playing out the final nine games and Leeds finishing the job or through places being awarded via points per game — some fans feel that Hernandez’ time in the starting 11 will be over and he will need replacing due to his age.

Personally, I believe that, should Leeds be playing their next season in the Premier League, Hernandez will still be starting in midfield. His quality is undoubted; he should have played more years at a top-level than he has done.

A player who has the vision and technique to play a pass like that is nowhere near finished.

Although he does get the occasional hamstring injury, Hernandez is still fit. On top of this, the Premier League has a less demanding schedule than the Championship due to having fewer teams, which would work in his favour and he wouldn’t need to play in cup games.

Crucially, however, Bielsa knows and trusts him and, if we’ve learnt one thing over the last couple of seasons, it’s that Bielsa prioritises picking players that he trusts over anything else.

Therefore, in the next few years, I believe Leeds will be looking for somebody to be an understudy to Hernandez rather than a replacement. Ideally, this will be a young player who will learn from Pablo on the training pitch whilst being good enough to be able to play plenty of minutes as a substitute and to replace the Spaniard if he gets injured or suspended. I would say that he could also be used in rotation with Pablo, but we know by now that Bielsa doesn’t favour rotation.

Since we’ve got a bit of time on our hands, I thought I’d write a series of articles breaking down a few players I think could be options for Leeds to look at and use this piece to lay down the criteria for the type of player Leeds would be looking at, whilst addressing a few of the obvious issues people might be thinking of.

Player Type

The visual above is taken from Smarterscout, which uses a series of complex algorithms to attempt to give a value to everything a player does on the pitch depending on how each action they take affects their team’s expected goals for and against. This is then weighted to the league the player is competing in.

Looking at the bar titled ‘attacking output’, we can see that Hernandez is given a value of 96, which shows that Hernandez is absolutely central to Leeds’ attacking process. I’m sure you don’t need an algorithm to tell you that, so at least we know the model fits with the eye-test.

What we want to focus on here, though, is the ‘style ratings’ spider graphic as this shows the type of player we’re looking for. Of the metrics listed on that graphic, ‘Pass Towards Goal’ is the key one: his rating of 75 being the most of any of the metrics that involve him being in possession of the ball.

What does this mean? Essentially, when Hernandez is on the ball, his primary function is to progress Leeds up the field towards the opposition goal. In fact, Wyscout has him as the top-ranked midfielder for progressive passes per 90, with 12.98. Only Luke Ayling and Michael Hector make more than him across the whole division.

Hernandez is also the only midfielder to be ranked in the top 10 of the division for progressive passes as the rest are all defenders, due to the fact that by nature of being the furthest players from the opposition goal, they have to progress the ball forward in order for their team to be dangerous.

We also need to keep in mind Pablo’s creativity. He doesn’t simply progress Leeds up the pitch. He creates chances too. This season, he is creating less than he was last season when he primarily played on the right. But he’s still one of the top creators in the league, ranked at fifth in the league for expected assists with 7.7.

[A note here: throughout this series of articles I will primarily use expected assists as a mark of a player’s creativity rather than assists themselves. Expected assists take into account only the quality of the chance created, which is the job of the creator. Assists are a poor metric in isolation as they rely on another player to turn the pass into an assist, which they might not do.]

So, we’re looking for a player with the potential to be not only a top ball progressor but also a top creator. This narrows down our options greatly. These types of players don’t come cheap, which though Leeds might be in the Premier League next season, could be a problem depending on the fallout that COVID-19 has on the state of football finances. The assumption is that it will affect them greatly.

Coupled with the fact that we’re looking for an understudy rather than a guaranteed starter, this leads me to think we should be looking for a diamond outside of the top five European leagues. Leeds did this last in 2017/18 to largely poor results, but many teams have done this before and been successful. Importantly, I’m talking about finding one quality player and not throwing the net wide to make lots of signings from obscure places.

Why not look to the Premier League?

There are a few standout players in the Premier League who I think are highly likely to move on from their current teams, particularly if they find themselves relegated. This will certainly be the case for one of them if Premier League does come to a conclusion and may well be the case for the other. At the time of football coming to a halt, his team had just dropped into the relegation places, albeit with a game in hand.

The players in question are Emiliano Buendia of Norwich and John McGinn of Aston Villa.

The graph above shows how all outfield players in the Premier League (minimum 1000 minutes played) contribute towards their team taking shots. The vast majority of players sit under the average for at least one of dribbling or passing, whilst the best creators in the league are above average in both, sitting in the ‘Double trouble’ quadrant.

Buendia and McGinn are both well above average in terms of contributing to shot creation through their dribbling, but they truly stand out as passers, which is what we’re really looking for here. They are ranked 7th and 9th respectively for open play passes contributing to shots, which is all the more impressive considering they both play for teams in a relegation battle.

Buendia is also similar to Hernandez in that he is naturally a winger, but I could easily imagine him making the shift to playmaker in midfield due to having a very similar skillset to his compatriot.

So why couldn’t Leeds look to prize either one of these away in the summer. Quite simply because both players have performed so well for relegation-battling sides that they’re on the radar of many clubs competing much higher up the Premier League table.

McGinn was on the radar of Manchester United, though he may not be of interest to them now that they have signed Bruno Fernandes. Either way, there will be top teams tracking him and ready to pounce in the summer.

Meanwhile, Buendia has been spotted by many in the online analytics community, so you can be sure that many clubs will be after him and he has been spoken of as an option to provide depth at Liverpool, although in that case as a right-sided winger.

One player who popped up when I looked for midfielders under the age of 24 with high progressive passing numbers was Lewis Cook, a player Leeds fans obviously know extremely well. His expected assists aren’t in the region in which we’re looking at and he’d perhaps fit more of an Adam Forshaw type profile. Should Bournemouth go down, he might be available but if he were to return to Elland Road it wouldn’t be to be understudy to Pablo Hernandez.

Why not bring some of the Championship’s top players up?

Sheffield United were happy to make most of their signings from the cream of the Championship this summer, which is a strategy that has served them well as they sit in the European places. Many might hope that Leeds would try and bring in Eberechi Eze from QPR, who is an undeniable talent.

Again though, he has been linked with teams that Leeds would struggle to compete with. For example, Spurs have been following him all season. I would also note that he is much more of a dribbler and isn’t quite the type of player we’re looking for here, although he might play the role more similarly to the way in which Samu Saiz did before moving back to Spain.

What about the other leagues in the top five European leagues?

We will look at a couple of players in upcoming articles that are impressing in some of the less glamorous European teams, but still playing in top leagues but of the young players that fit the profile many were already at teams Leeds would struggle to tempt them away from.

For example, Mikel Merino is a standout in La Liga, but he’s playing a side who are fourth in the league and catching the eye of elite clubs. Maxime Lopez of Lyon also looks very good but is unlikely to leave Lyon at this stage.

Why not use Roberts, Shackleton or Bogusz?

In the case of Roberts, I think he will end up as a striker rather than a midfielder. It’s where he’s played the majority of his football, despite the fact that most of his minutes for Leeds have been in an attacking midfield role.

He has looked good when he’s played in midfield for Leeds, but I personally feel he lacks the quality in his passing that Pablo possesses and I suspect Leeds would be best served by utilising him as an option as a striker, where he has always done well when needed.

I am a huge fan of Jamie Shackleton and I’m disappointed he hasn’t had the chance to play more this season, but I think he is more of a tireless runner and a ball-carrying midfielder, rather than a progressive passer and playmaker like Pablo. I think he’s more similar to Mateusz Klich, so I don’t see him as the successor to Pablo.

Finally, Bogusz. I think most expected to see Bogusz get some game time in the Championship this season after a very impressive pre-season. Instead, he has struggled with injuries this season and, when fit, the team has been very settled so he hasn’t had an opportunity to find his way in. As such, we can’t really expect him to step into the Premier League and be at the required level at his age. A loan to the Championship could be beneficial for him next season.

So, we have to get creative

That’s essentially my justification of why Leeds don’t need to spend tens of millions of pounds on a playmaker this summer. Pablo has still got it and there will be players out there in other European leagues who could make it in the Premier League and really benefit from a season behind a master like Hernandez in the pecking order.

The rest of the articles in this series will be focussed on individual players that I think could be the right fit. I think it will be good fun and I hope you’ll enjoy my selections.

You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.

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