It is a small irony of Marcelo Bielsa’s current line-up that the player he describes as “the most skilled in our team” cannot hold down a place in it.
Bielsa sees rare talent in Samuel Saiz, an imaginative brain which the average footballer lacks, but Saiz has been on Leeds United’s bench for the past four weeks and is waiting for a chance to present itself again.
Towards the end of October Bielsa saw what others thought they were seeing: that Saiz’s influence was regressing, his energy was flagging and the need for a rest was growing. Since then, Bielsa has filled his midfield with Mateusz Klich, Adam Forshaw and Kalvin Phillips, the latter moonlighting as a centre-back when he needs to.
Saiz’s time on the field has been brief in the interim, though he played for long enough as a substitute to set up goals against West Bromwich Albion and Bristol City with wonderfully-cultured passes to Pablo Hernandez. It is that which Bielsa likes about the Spaniard: the touch of genius in a midfielder who, at his very best, can be unplayable in the Championship but has worked without reward for a lot of this season and is now without a goal in a full calendar year.
Bielsa is likely to name Saiz on his bench for the fifth game running against Reading on Tuesday evening and United’s head coach said his appreciation of Saiz’s finer qualities did not override “an obligation to take into account the whole team.”
“I think Saiz is the most skilled player in our team and he has skills that few players have,” Bielsa said. “I’m not talking about only our team. I’m talking about football in general.
“He’s a player we need and we’re not used to thinking about teams by taking into account 18 (players), not just 11. We only think about 11 players. We always think that being a substitute is not a good thing but it’s a mistake to think like that, not because I’m telling you this but because of what reality tells us.
“Samu is very useful to our team. Either he plays 20 minutes, half-an-hour or the whole game. I have the obligation to take into account the whole team.”
Saiz’s temperament was called into question last season as a six-match ban for spitting and a subsequent loss of form hampered him from January onwards. He admitted recently that his attitude had suffered when it became clear that Leeds were out of the running for a top-six finish.
“Last season when we found out we couldn't make it to the play-offs, it was a moment that was hard for me,” Saiz said, speaking last month. “I had less motivation because I couldn't reach the objective. It's a problem I had and it can't happen again.”
Bielsa insisted he was conscious of Saiz’s desire to play, saying: “Of course it’s hard for each player not to think about his own interests. You have to find the right balance and draw the right conclusions.”
Asked if Saiz’s had shown the right levels of motivation after being dropped to the bench, Bielsa said: “Yes. I’m going to answer to you in two ways. It’s a yes and I’m honest.
“If that wasn’t the case then I wouldn’t say it publically but in this case he showed very positive behaviour.”