Daniel Chapman: The unusual Patrick Bamford, the nerdy Mateusz Klich - there's room for the odd at Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United
Footballers in 2019 are blending uncannily with their video game avatars to the point that it’s hard to tell which is influencing which.
In the Champions League talent is not enough. You need physical, marketable, downloadable perfection to be a player, on and off the pitch, among the elite.
Cristiano Ronaldo is the dream from an ad-exec’s brainstorm, a Ken Doll come to life who would be selling Y-fronts even if he had only half his talent. Compared to him, while Lionel Messi has too much talent to ignore, he lumbers advertisers with a normie haircut that wouldn’t shift much merch without a videoclip of outrageous skills to hide it.
The Championship should be a different story, but downwards infiltration can be assessed by counting the hair bleach bottles piling up in the corner of Charlie Austin’s bathroom. With one goal in 10 starts the West Bromwich Albion striker is struggling harder than Patrick Bamford to score, but while he insists on cosplaying as Sergio Agüero, it’s been a relief to see Patrick Bamford looking as embarrassed about his lack of goals as he once was of his violin lessons.
Bamford’s upbringing makes him unusual in football, but so does his ordinariness. When, in a joint video interview last season, Lewis Baker took a pair of scissors to a ratty old pair of trainers he was sure Bamford had been wearing since their youth team days at Chelsea, Patrick looked less Lord Bamford and more David Batty. If there’s one thing Batty would respect in another footballer, it’s a long-lasting pair of shoes, especially if they were bought cheap, and the receipt was still in the shoebox.
Sean Dyche was merciless when Bamford was on loan at Burnley, either for his privilege or his normieness but definitely for being different in the dressing room, one of the greatest crimes you can commit against the peer pressure of the Premier League.
But if Marcelo Bielsa was to follow Dyche’s lead and criticise his squad for their quirks, first he’d need to rise from his bucket and gaze at the club shop-clad figure in the mirror, sleepless from a night of analysing football videos he doesn’t need to watch. He’d decide that, rather than calling out the oddballs at Thorp Arch, he should feel glad to be among so many of his own kind.
A charming part of Bielsa’s story with Leeds is about an eccentric finding a second home among people like Gjanni Alioski, flying over furniture; Barry Douglas, coordinating his outfits with a kaleidoscope; and Gaetano Berardi, quietly fuming into a photography magazine.
Or Mateusz Klich, whose new contract feels like a victory for football’s weirdos. Nothing says imperfect quite like a footballer wearing glasses, and when those specs are the finishing touch of an ensemble inspired by Polish street fashion, Klich immediately stands out as a football non-conformist.
Key among his idiosyncrasies is, like Alioski, a sense of fun. Amid the supposedly very serious and important business of a touchline brawl with Bolton last season, Klich wandered the edges with a bottle that he used to tip water down the neck of Joe Williams, just to see what would happen. It’s good to remember that, before the worldwide moral and ethical arguments about scoring against Aston Villa had escalated all the way to a FIFA Fair Play award, there was Klich with the ball, and you could almost hear him laughing as he ran to put it in the net. It was only a game, so why not have some fun? Because it’s not a game, it’s football. Only nobody has told Mateusz.
Klich is among the most complete of Bielsa’s metamorphosed players, and who knows what Marcelo saw in Mateusz that inspired him to create such a complete midfielder. Perhaps part of what he saw, and liked, was a nerd.
Klich is now a nerd with a long contract, deserved for playing more than 5,500 minutes of Bielsa’s 6,000 minutes (and a bit) in charge. It’s deserved, too, for the way success so far hasn’t changed him, or anyone at Leeds. Human frailties haven’t been Photoshopped out of the picture at Elland Road; there’s no attempt to disguise their efforts or pretend this is a pixel-perfect team.
Leeds United should never have a team like anybody else’s. But a coach like Bielsa and a player like Klich will always fit right in with us.
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.