Last week was Pablo Hernandez’s most compelling spell at Leeds United to date and the first time that his game finally clicked.
When the Spaniard sealed Saturday’s win at Cardiff City with a touch of class and deft curling finish, Garry Monk was able to point to a clear example of why Leeds signed him.
There was more to Hernandez’s performance in Wales than an eye-catching finish at the end of the game and he helped to give United rhythm throughout, even in a first half when Cardiff hit a post twice and dominated possession. Both of Leeds’ chances before half-time relied on the 31-year-old’s anticipation.
By Hernandez’s own admission, he is fitter and sharper now than he was when he arrived on loan from Qatari club Al-Arabi last month. Pre-season in Qatar had barely started and Hernandez was returning to a country which he last played in with Swansea City two years ago. Almost inevitably, his start has been a slow one.
“It’s been difficult for me but in the last two games I’ve felt good on the pitch,” Hernandez said.
“The first games weren’t easy because I didn’t play in pre-season. I started my pre-season 10 days before the start of the league here and I didn’t train a lot in Qatar. That made it difficult.
“The last two games have been important because I played 90 minutes (against Blackburn Rovers last Tuesday) and 88 minutes against Cardiff. I’m very happy because I helped the team.”
There were flashes of Hernandez’s ball-playing ability last month, specifically in a League Cup win over Fleetwood Town which began the run to tonight’s third-round clash with Blackburn. But he struggled to justify his inclusion in the 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest which rounded off August.
Monk’s early switch of formation, from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2, removed the number 10 role which Hernandez wanted to fill but Monk’s recent rethink allowed him to take up that role. Of seven shots on target at Cardiff, three were produced by Hernandez.
“That’s the quality Pablo has,” said Monk, who played with Hernandez and coached him briefly at Swansea. “That’s why we brought him here. He had a very good game and I thought he was the one in the first half who looked like he could make something happen.
“You can see his intelligence. He’s got great intelligence. The group we’ve got here are really young and what they needed was some experience in there. I’ve managed to bring in a little bit of that and Pablo is one of those players. The other players are only going to learn from him. He’s played at a higher level right through his career but he wanted to come and have the challenge as well.
“I’d never bring an older player in if I felt that he was going through the motions. Pablo’s come here with determination. I know the quality he has but the determination was what made it very easy to bring him in. It’s not for him to babysit anyone, though. I want him to put his quality on the pitch.”
Hernandez was one of several summer signings – among them Jansson and French winger Hadi Sacko – who joined Leeds with a view to a permanent move. His loan from Al-Arabi ends at the start of January but Leeds have already negotiated the option to sign him full-time until the end of this season, potentially with an option to secure him further until the summer of 2018.
The former Valencia player, however, said: “I don’t think now about this. I only think in the present and I only think about the next game.
“In the future I’ll have time for possibilities and I’ll speak with the club but I’m very happy here in Leeds. What’s more important for me is playing well because Leeds have helped me have confidence.
“For me, what’s more important is to play, play good and help the team win games. When we have the time to speak with the club I speak with them.”
Both Hernandez and Monk were returning to familiar and potentially hostile territory on Saturday, two ex-Swansea player pitted against Cardiff.
Monk said before and afterwards that he had given no thought to an old rivalry but joked that he “watched Pablo’s celebration closely” after the midfielder’s goal on 82 minutes killed the match and earned Leeds a second straight win.
Hernandez said: “I played for Swansea for two years and in the last year it coincided with Cardiff being in the Premier League. I played in that derby, which is an important game for both sets of supporters.
“But I thought nothing of this on the pitch (on Saturday) and the only thing I thought about was winning this game for my team now.
“I know the Swansea fans but I’m very happy because I scored and we won.”