Leeds United in desperate need of positives ahead of Watford and midfield is the perfect place to go looking
Leeds United are in desperate need of a positive, in fact right now they need two – one to cancel out the negativity and another just so they can have a positive heading into the Watford game.
The midfield feels like the perfect place to go looking, given it has at times been a problem area and the source of much worry, around the club.
Marcelo Bielsa’s revelation after the defeat by West Ham United that Adam Forshaw had suffered another leg muscle injury, a tear no less, was met with a very predictable response.
Owner Andrea Radrizzani is known to prefer the term ‘calculated business decisions’ to the word gamble, but tweeting Forshaw’s name in response to a question over the whereabouts of a new midfield signing has taken on the feeling of a leap in the dark that ended in pain.
Leeds felt Forshaw could provide an answer to a puzzle they thought they had resolved when Michael Cuisance entered the building last summer, only for him to exit it again without a deal being made.
For the next month, plus however long it takes for the 29-year-old to get back to his pre -September-2019 self, Forshaw will not even be able to provide back-up for Bielsa’s midfield. It is a crying shame and a situation no one wanted, but it was always a distinct possibility.
When the transfer window opened, Leeds wanted a central midfield addition, so when it closed without one arriving, the subject became a stick with which to beat the club. It also, certainly as far as Bielsa is concerned, became a largely pointless debate.
He does not deal in hypotheticals, he prefers to discuss reality and he has his midfield. It comprises Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich, and Stuart Dallas. Rodrigo, too, counts although he’s yet to really nail the defensive contribution you might hope for, from someone operating close to the engine room, and no one can say with conviction if Tyler Roberts is going to be a nine or a 10. He’s even played on the wing, lately.
There are other options – Robin Koch and Pascal Struijk have both replaced Phillips and Jamie Shackleton is a central midfielder, by trade.
Phillips has been a good news story for Leeds and a source of genuine pride around the city since Bielsa arrived and transformed him into the player who shone for England this summer at the Euros. Dallas was the surprise story of last season, playing far above the level he reached as a central midfielder in the Championship. When those two aren’t quite on it, as neither were on Saturday against the Hammers, it falls to Klich to provide the positive and yet since promotion he has struggled to do what he did so brilliantly and consistently beforehand.
There were times last season that the Polish international looked more like his old self and he ended the campaign on a high at Burnley, but having recovered from the Old Trafford nightmare on the opening day to play well enough against Everton, he was struck by Covid-19, again.
He was busy and tidy against Newcastle as a box-to-box number eight and took on a more advanced role against West Ham as Bielsa replaced the injured Patrick Bamford with Rodrigo.
If you work off the highlights, Klich's performance will be tainted by the second-half miss that proved costly. Assessed over the full piece, his display had a lot more about it.
The key observation to make is that Klich was there. When Leeds needed a player high up the pitch to help Rodrigo press West Ham’s defence or facilitate attacks, Klich was there.
When Rodrigo pulled the ball back on a promising break, Klich was there, sprinting into position to be the link between the Spaniard and Raphinha, who duly found the net.
He was there again at the end of a move that was Leeds at their best, teeing up Dallas this time who forced a wonderful save from Łukasz Fabiański.
It wasn’t all pinpoint accuracy from the Pole but he was ever-present and had to get through a tonne of work, bursting forward to provide a focal point for the attack when Rodrigo dropped deep, charging back to defend and cover his man Declan Rice, when attacks broke down.
And whereas Rodrigo tired, Klich kept sprinting, supporting second-half breakaways, driving to the right flank in particular. His average position marked him further forward than Leeds' striker Rodrigo, who opted to come deep to get involved, with a much larger measure of success in the first half than the second. That might have been one reason for the lack of goalscoring chances for the Spaniard. Klich did get on the end of a chance and it was a big one.
His 64th minute miss was bad, Klich’s reaction said as much, yet his head coach values a player being in the right place to finish off attacks. Klich was there, even if the finish wasn’t.
When Raphinha and Junior Firpo needed a third man to unlock West Ham on the left, Klich was there on the touchline to do so.
Despite being the more offensive of Bielsa’s two central midfielders, Klich was dropping deep to try and get Leeds playing in the final quarter of an hour, even if he wasn’t successful.
On 85 minutes he was still bursting forward to try an ambitious one-two with Dallas that didn’t quite come off.
When he lost the ball just outside the West Ham area, hoping for a free-kick that didn’t come, the Hammers cut through the middle of the park and as they arrived deep in Leeds territory, somehow Klich was there to win it back again.
It was Klich’s cross that West Ham cleared before going downfield to try and win it, yet he still gave it his all to try and track back as Phillips failed to make an all-important tackle and Firpo’s ball-watching allowed Rice to counter. By the time either Leeds player got anywhere Rice, the ball was at Antonio’s feet and the Whites were undone. The fault, however, did not lie with Klich. For that goal, questions could be asked of other individuals but also of the man marking system, which has problems when a player gets beaten by a dribble or a man loses his marker.
Positives are hard to find when you concede in the last minute to go winless in six, but Klich’s performance was bettered by few of his team-mates and ultimately he was a couple of inches away from a huge goal, to go with his assist and all that work. According to both the total and successful 'pressures' he has recorded this season, he’s not as much of a nuisance as last season - interestingly Leeds as a team managed fewer pressures against West Ham than against anyone else this season - but he’s still more of a nuisance than Rodrigo or Roberts and a better defender.
If any player in the squad understands how to make Leeds more fluid in their attacks and more difficult to beat off the ball, it's the waspish midfielder - against West Ham on a number of occasions he was seen pointing to where team-mates needed to be as the Hammers took possession. It would be hard to argue that Klich should be replaced at '10' by either of Rodrigo or Roberts, whether or not Bamford is fit this weekend.
Klich building on that performance or even replicating it against Watford, would be one big positive. The other has to come from Dallas, who Bielsa insists will rediscover his level, Phillips, who rarely puts two subdued performances together, or a combination of both. There is no new midfielder and for the time being there is no Forshaw. The answer to this problem at least has to come from within.