Leeds United: Saiz under the microscope ahead of return to the fold

Samuel Saiz's apology for his red card at Newport County made a big and very sensible play of his responsibility to the viewing public. 'I understand that I'm a role model to the next generation of Leeds supporters,' he said, as part of his mea culpa for spitting at Newport's Robbie Willmott.

Tuesday, 20th February 2018, 5:00 am
Samuel Saiz.

That duty was at the forefront of his and Leeds United’s minds as the club managed the fall-out from an unsavoury sending off but the impact of his six-game ban was felt most keenly by the players around him and his then head coach. Saiz returns to the fold at Derby County tomorrow with Leeds two points better off, their squad under new management and everyone crying out for the Spaniard’s flair.

There was more to Thomas Christiansen’s sacking than Saiz’s suspension alone, just as United’s struggle for results is more nuanced, but Leeds have missed Saiz; deprived of his imagination at a time when they needed it badly. Christiansen lost his job four games into Saiz’s ban and his replacement, Paul Heckingbottom, has earned one point from two matches since, claimed by virtue of a last-ditch fightback against Bristol City on Sunday.

Heckingbottom’s formations to date – 4-1-4-1 at Sheffield United and 4-4-2 against Bristol City – begged the question of where Saiz would fit effectively in either of them, but the plans for both games were drawn up without him and Saiz still stands out as the attacking instigator who Leeds can build a productive team around. Heckingbottom saw as much when Leeds beat his old Barnsley side at Oakwell in November.

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Pierre-Michel Lasogga.

Saiz’s basic statistics – nine goals and five assists, predominantly in the number 10 role – mark his value out but his influence goes farther than that: more shots per game than anyone at Elland Road except Pierre-Michel Lasogga, joint top of the key passes tally alongside Pablo Hernandez and a long way out in front when it comes to running with the ball at his feet. Hernandez has held the fort in Saiz’s absence with four assists but Saiz offers some of the variety which Leeds have been missing. His last appearance, as a 75th-minute substitute, came at Newport six weeks ago. He has not completed 90 minutes for almost two months. Leeds have contested six Under-23 games during Saiz’s ban but Christiansen chose not to use him in any of them, preferring to keep him in shape with standard training sessions.

“If he gives 100 per cent he will be ready for the games when he’s available,” Christiansen said.

Heckingbottom took a different approach and for the past fortnight has been putting Saiz through a specific fitness programme: “I don’t know what he’s been doing before but we’ve worked him hard for two weeks. He’s been moaning about his legs being tired.”

Little by little, United’s squad is creeping back towards full strength. Luke Ayling, Tyler Roberts and Conor Shaughnessy have injuries which will keep them out for the foreseeable future but Saiz was one of three players who completed a ban during Sunday’s draw with Bristol City. Gaetano Berardi served two matches after his dismissal against Cardiff City and Liam Cooper has been missing for four since his red card in last month’s 4-3 defeat to Millwall. Centre-back Pontus Jansson has so far dodged the 10th yellow card which would automatically rule him out for two games.

Pierre-Michel Lasogga.

Heckingbottom made it clear that the players available to him on his first day in the job would have a “head start” in his selection policy over those who were absent but his choice of team on Sunday made the point that his first game in charge, a 2-1 defeat to Sheffield United at Bramall Lane, had not ticked enough boxes. Kemar Roofe and Gjanni Alioski were dropped and Kalvin Phillips made way to allow Heckingbottom to field two up front against Bristol City. The changes failed to work as intended, or not until Leeds staged a late fightback from 2-0 down, but there was a sense of a coach asking players to prove themselves.

Saiz might be given the same instruction at Pride Park tomorrow if Heckingbottom chooses to shuffle his pack again.

“Lots is said about formations but I don’t mind saying it – our formation’s only really relevant when we’ve not got the ball,” Heckingbottom said.

“We either defend in a 4-4-2 or defend in a 4-3-3. With the ball we want to see movement and no real straight lines. I’d love it if someone paused the video, asked what our formation was and you couldn’t tell. We want to have that freedom when we play but without the ball we want to make it black and white for the players – this is how we defend.”

United’s defending has been a central theme in their run of nine games without a win. The club’s concessions in the Championship this season stand at 41, six shy of last season’s tally with 14 games still to play. Heckingbottom said he was alive to their lengthy wait for a victory but reluctant to make too much of it.

“From my point of view, I’m conscious that I want to shift that,” he said.

“I know it’s your job to speak about it and the fans are desperate for a win but I don’t want to drag too much of what’s gone before with me.

“I want to make my own judgements, I want the players to understand it’s fresh and new here. Everybody will have an opinion on what team I should pick and players but that’s on past performances. I want to judge everyone on now.”