Welcome back to the next part of my series, ‘Searching for Pablo’s Successor’. If this is the first article you’ve read in the series, I’d encourage you to read the introduction to see the premise of what I’m trying to do here.
If you’ve not got time for that, I’m working on the premise that if Leeds are promoted to the Premier League, they may want to utilise Pablo in midfield for one more season.
With that being so, now is the time to bring somebody in to learn from him and play a supporting role. This player would step up into his shoes to take the majority of the minutes in the future.
This week we’re looking in the Netherlands and their top division, the Eredivisie.
Date of Birth: 28/09/1995 (24 years old)
Current Club: Emmen
Career History: Allianza Lima, Granada, Porres (loan), Tondela (loan), Emmen
Estimated transfer value according to Transfermarkt: £1.08m
Estimated wages according to Football Manager 20: £8k p/w
Sergio Peña is the cheapest option that I’ve looked at so far. He is a Peruvian international but his top-level appearances have been limited to Portugal’s Liga Nos and Netherlands’ Eredivisie.
It’s worth noting early on that Leeds have had limited success with transfers from less competitive leagues over the last few years. Victor Orta’s first transfer window at the club saw players like Caleb Ekuban and Pawel Cibicki coming in and struggling to adapt to playing in Leeds’ first-team.
Peña should be considered as an option here for two reasons: firstly, he’s performing very well against the league benchmark in a mid/lower table team; secondly, because the premise of this series is finding a player who won’t have the responsibility of playing the lion’s share of minutes in the first-team. We’re looking for a player who can come in and learn. They will initially play off the bench and as cover if needed but their first season would be one of acclimatisation.
Before I continue I’d like to draw attention to how I came to look at Peña in the first place.
A friend of mine, Zoltan Toth (@zoltanknows), has created a graph in which he attempts to break down player styles. I asked him to make one that shows players who play midfield roles in a similar way to how Hernandez does at Leeds. This is what he came up with.
Hernandez is the star icon, with the players closest to him in yellow.
A couple of the player names jumped out to me immediately. Firstly, Lorenzo Pellegrini of Roma. Pellegrini has been one of the standout young players in elite football leagues this season. He’s scored 5 goals, made 10 assists and is likely to be playing in the Champions League for Roma next season if he isn’t picked up by anybody else. We can safely rule him out as an option.
The other that I ruled out straight away was Florian Neuhaus of Borussia Mönchengladbach. He is another who has been excellent in a team chasing a Champions League place so he is not going to be attainable for Leeds United, even in the Premier League.
Filip Krovinovic and Joao Carvalho are both Championship players who don’t impress me massively. I don’t think they’re bad players but I think there are better options out there for this so I decided not to look at them further.
Stijn Spierings plays for Levski Sofia in Bulgaria, a league that I didn’t want to consider in this search as I think it would be much too big a jump to make even with the above qualification.
That left three players, all of which play in the Eredivise. Calvin Stengs of AZ Alkmaar is the standout of the trio but he is valued at nearly £17m on Transfermarkt and would likely cost more than that. Peña also interested me more than Stengs as Alkmaar are a much more dominant team, so it is easier for Stengs to look impressive than it is for Peña.
The third, Orkun Kökçü of Feyenoord, has been linked with Arsenal and so is likely to be out of our range.
In order to begin comparing the Peruvian with Pablo Hernandez, I first looked at where they made most actions on the pitch. I did this using Smarterscout’s heatmaps. These show not just where players touch the ball, but what action they make when they have possession.
In Hernandez’s heatmap, we can see a clear preference for the right-hand side. Across our various All Stats Aren’t We channels we have often spoken about Pablo’s role in Bielsa’s tactic to overload the right-hand side before switching to the left.
Hernandez has played on the right-wing and in the centre this season. In both positions, he favours the right half-space or inside-right channel. When playing centrally he drifts to the right and when playing on the right he drifts centrally.
Peña’s actions are less spread out than Hernandez’s and he has made more actions in deeper central positions. There is also a bias to the right though, which is interesting. This suggests that he would be very comfortable in Hernandez’ role in Leeds’ team.
It’s notable that he doesn’t get into the box to shoot as much as Hernandez. This could perhaps be to do with the fact that Hernandez plays in a dominant side, whereas Peña does not so he’s less able to attack the box.
The next thing that I looked at is how Pena matched up with Hernandez on a couple of key metrics which are essential to the work of the playmaker in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds.
Progressive passes are a very simple metric — they are passes which move the player’s team closer to the opposition goal. If they are made in their own half, they must be at least 30m. In the opposition half, they must be 10m or longer.
The reason why I’m using this metric is that Hernandez is an outstanding player in the Championship in progressing play. He has made the most progressive passes in the league (12.98 per 90) aside from Luke Ayling (13.63 per 90) and Michael Hector (13 per 90). It’s notable that defenders generally make an overwhelming amount more progressive passes than other positions, primarily because they are playing in the deepest position on the pitch barring goalkeepers — most forward passes they make will be progressive passes. Midfielders and strikers often have to pass backwards in order to keep the ball or because passes forward are too difficult. This makes Hernandez even more outstanding.
Hernandez also makes the second-highest amount of passes per 90 for all midfielders in the league with only Fulham’s Harry Arter ahead of him. With that in mind, I created a graph with one axis displaying passes per 90 and the other featuring the percentage of those passes which are progressive. Not doing this, it would more likely that we’d see players who make more passes show up as more effective ball progressors when in fact they’re often passing the ball backwards and sideways.
As you can see, Hernandez is an outlier on this graph. No other player comes close to him in terms of ball progression if they are involved in play as much as he does.
Those who feature in the upper left quadrant are likely to be much more direct players. Hernandez is a classic playmaker in a possession heavy side.
It’s worth mentioning also that the only dot further on the X-axis is, of course, Harry Arter. Note how little he progresses the ball in comparison to Hernandez. This is because Fulham pass the ball between Arter and their two centre backs far more than they pass it forwards.
In the Eredivisie, Pena shows up exactly in the quadrant of the graph we want him to be. In all the previous articles in this series, this hasn’t been the case, so this is very encouraging. We don’t have to theorise that Pena could progress the ball as often as Hernandez, we can see that he’s already doing so in his team. In fact, if Peña was on the championship graph he would appear not far off from Hernandez. He has 57.15 passes per 90 and just short of 18% of his passes are progressive, compared to Pablo’s 21.18%.
One thing that should be qualified, though, is that the Eredivisie is a more passing focussed league than the Championship. This is shown by the fact that the average of passes per 90 is higher. Looking into this further, I discovered that the average for passes per defensive action (Wyscout’s pressing metric) in Eredivisie is over 12.58, whilst it’s 9.22 in the Championship. That means that pressing is much more intense in the Championship, making retaining possession and making progressive passes much more difficult.
As well as being a top ball progressor, any player tasked with stepping into Hernandez’ shoes needs to be able to shoulder the burden of being their team’s creator-in-chief.
The treemap above shows Leeds’ top ten contributors to expected assists per 90 (which is the metric we’re using because it doesn’t rely on people to finish chances created, unlike assists). The bigger the area of the rectangle and the darker the colour, the higher the number of expected assists per 90. As expected, Hernandez is Leeds biggest contributor with 0.31 xA per 90.
Meanwhile, Peña’s contributes the most to Emmen, but he is not so ably assisted by his teammates’ contributions as Hernandez, as shown by the fact that his rectangle takes up a larger proportion of the graphic. His xA per 90 of 0.22 might not be as impressive as Hernandez’s 0.31, but as mentioned earlier, he’s playing in a far less dominant side.
What we can take from this is the knowledge that he’s comfortable to be the prime creator in his team.
I’ve been careful in this series to not draw any conclusions based purely on data. As such, I’ve watched every player in at least one full match, as well as watching playlists of certain characteristics I’m looking for so that I can get a rounded view of each player.
I decided to watch Emmen’s last game before the Eredivisie was halted as the full 90-minute game. I immediately observed how Pena moved regularly to find space and helped progress the ball. He attempted to play the ball forwards as often as possible.
In this example, we see that he is happy to come deep to get the ball in order to move his team forwards. Holding the ball a little to draw Venlo players towards him, he then spread the ball to the right back, sprinting forwards into space to receive the ball again.
I found it quite remarkable that he kept finding himself pockets of space like the one above. Four Venlo players are in his vicinity but he’s still able to control the ball and move it on again quickly without them challenging him. This is a Pablo-like trait.
He simply dipped a little to the right to evade a defender coming across him and play the ball down the line. Then his team were able to get organise themselves into their attacking shape.
Vision and Through Balls
Peña was also happy to play much more ambitious passes from deeper positions. This is something Hernandez has done this season with his assists for Helder Costa vs Cardiff and Stuart Dallas at Stoke.
As an aside, Hernandez also made a pass for Gjanni Alioski at Stoke which ended up with a goal for Patrick Bamford which is forgotten about but is well worth going to find. In my mind, it’s one of the passes of the season.
Here Peña has dropped deep to find space again. This time he had vision to see his striker making a run in behind and the confidence to play the defence-splitting pass. This went through the midfield and defensive lines.
The shot was saved, but as the image above shows, he managed to set his teammate clean through on goal with a pass made from within his own half.
As we know, Hernandez does drop deep occasionally but he tends to operate higher up the pitch. We need to know that Peña can do that too.
In this example, Lorenzo Burnet had the ball on the left flank. Peña knew he wanted to attack the corner of the penalty area so sprinted to the edge of the box to offer himself as an option.
Burnet played the ball into his feet and continued his run, knowing that Peña would return the ball into his path. Unfortunately, he shot into the side netting but this showed the type of clever play Peña is capable of in and around the penalty area.
I was impressed that he managed to find the space to make this pass without any pressure on him again. It demonstrated that he was thinking ahead of his opponents to get to that space on the edge of the box before they anticipated his movement.
One aspect of Peña’s game which is markedly different to Pablo’s is his ball carrying. He is a powerful runner with the ball. This was evident in his team’s second goal of the game.
Picking up the ball in the midfield third, he drove at speed to the edge of the penalty area.
Two Venlo defenders almost caught him but he shook them off, displaying his strength. He got his head up, showing good composure and decision making to make the right pass. Luka Adzic’s shot was saved but Marko Kolar buried the rebound.
I mentioned that this is different to Hernandez but it’s perhaps worth noting that Hernandez’ game was far more about ball-carrying in his younger days than it is now. He has simply adapted with age.
As I said earlier in the heat-map section, Peña seems to do more of his play-making from deeper areas and thus is less of a goal-threat than Hernandez. In the game I watched, he didn’t really get any opportunities inside the penalty area and wasn’t particularly keen to take on long-range efforts.
If he were playing for Leeds he would need to add goal-threat to his game as Leeds have relied on Hernandez for important goals ever since he arrived at the club.
I could see by watching clips of other games of his that he can finish when he does get into the box. He also showed some good examples of timing his run well to find space to shoot from an unmarked position, similar to the goal above.
Anybody who has watched Leeds at all since Bielsa became manager knows that every single player has a lot of work to do from a defensive standpoint. No player is exempt from this, so we need to know that Peña can put that work in.
According to Wyscout, he ranks below average for midfielders in the Eredivisie for defensive duels per 90. Emmen are also a mid-ranked side for the passes per defensive action metric so he would have to adjust to the pressing system were he to join Leeds.
However, Hernandez wasn’t particularly well-known for his defensive work before Bielsa arrived at Leeds and he has coped fine. I can also specifically remember the first game under Bielsa being broadcast on Sky and the pundits discussing how then new-signing Patrick Bamford would probably struggle to play in a pressing system. Many would say that Bamford’s best attribute this season has been the way he’s led the press. If players buy into Bielsa’s methods, they raise their game defensively.
With that being said, I watched to see how hard Peña worked out of possession and I could see him making the adjustment. With Emmen not being a particularly high-pressing side, he wasn’t chasing all over the pitch to win the ball, but he would actively seek to win the ball back in his area of the pitch.
In this example, he looked to have been beaten with Vitesse moving the ball into a dangerous attacking position.
He didn’t give up on the cause though and chased back to win it and set his team on a counter-attack.
One might think that this isn’t a particularly spectacular example of defensive work, but I felt satisfied that with a bit of time working under Bielsa he would get up to speed on the pressing work.
Of all the players I’ve looked at in this series, I think I enjoyed watching Peña the most. He’s one of the oldest players I’ve considered at 24 years old but I think that’s fine as he still has his peak years ahead of him.
It would be a gamble to bring a player over from the Eredivisie and expect them to adjust to the speed and physicality of the game in England, but I think if given time to adjust he could flourish.
If the premise of this series was to find a player who could come straight in and take over from Hernandez, I would be much more reluctant to present a player from the Eredivisie. I would instead be looking at players in the big five European leagues or at bringing a player up from the Championship.
This whole series has been a bit of a thought experiment for me and a challenge to try and find a Hernandez-like player who could be available for excellent value. In Peña, I think I’ve found somebody who fits that bill.
With that, this will be my last piece in this series. I’ll be very interested to see what Victor Orta chooses to do if Leeds are promoted to the Premier League. It may well be that Leeds use the midfield three that started the 19/20 season, as Phillips, Klich and Forshaw offer excellent control.
I’d be surprised if Hernandez wasn’t still the creative force for the team, be that on the right or in the centre. When Leeds do come to sign his successor, that signing will be one of the most important ones they’ve made in years.
You can follow Josh Hobbs on Twitter @JoshAHobbs.
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