Phil Hay column: From outcast to Leeds United's midfield general - what made Mateusz Klich click?

Leeds United midfielder Mateusz Klich celebrates his goal at Sheffield Wednesday last Friday.
Leeds United midfielder Mateusz Klich celebrates his goal at Sheffield Wednesday last Friday.
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It is easy to be clever when hindsight contradicts a manager and revisionism is at work with anyone who thinks they saw a star in Mateusz Klich last season but the baffling aspect of his exclusion under Thomas Christiansen was how little he seemed to know about it.

Footballers are never eager to articulate their own character flaws – there was one at Leeds United several years ago who expressed bafflement over the club’s decision to dispatch him on loan without admitting that he had taken liberties with his manager – but to take Klich at his word, Christiansen’s loss of confidence in him came down to his choice of footwear.

He picked the wrong boots away at Cardiff City last September and, on a soft and heavy pitch, lost his footing at the start of the attack which brought about Cardiff’s opening goal. Klich was substituted in the second half with Leeds 3-0 down and their midfield murdered. “Then he (Christiansen) stopped practically speaking to me,” Klich has since said. That was virtually that and their relationship reached the stage where irritated posts on Twitter were Klich’s way of attacking Christiansen’s team selection.

Klich contributed nothing at Cardiff – no key passes, no shots on goal, no more than lateral passing – but it is telling that when he came back to Leeds in June after a loan with Utrecht he sought out Marcelo Bielsa and asked him to explain how he wanted him to play. That Bielsa was unsure at first is besides the point. “Footballers sometimes forget to listen,” Klich told the Daily Telegraph last week. And managers, it could be argued, sometimes forget to speak.

Bielsa has obvious advantages over Christiansen, who was and is a rookie by comparison. Bielsa has knowledge gleaned from the hundreds of players who have passed through his hands and the scores of games he has prepared for and won. He also has a captive audience of Championship players who cannot pretend to be on his reputational level and have the sense not to question his authority. There were 20-odd departures from Elland Road in the summer and, no doubt, some noses put out of joint but none of those jettisoned were bold enough to publicly contest the decision of a head coach who made those calls watching them in the flesh. Somehow Bielsa was able to obliterate dead wood without making it personal.

Christiansen, of course, might have a more reasoned explanation for overlooking Klich and it is worth remembering that when Utrecht first began angling for a loan deal, Leeds were a top-six Championship team. It is also worth remembering that the club got goals from their midfield last season: seven from Gjanni Alioski, seven from Pablo Hernandez, seven from Kalvin Phillips and five from Samuel Saiz. But it is largely forgotten that when Leeds signed Klich from FC Twente, they tied up the transfer in haste when they realised that Middlesbrough were trying to talk him round. He was rated by others in this division and classed as good value at £1.5m.

Bielsa has always been a modern thinker, ahead of his time by about a quarter of a century, but his handling of Klich has been old-fashioned in the sense of a manager trusting his ability to coach rather than running straight to the transfer market. By the end of pre-season, he had worked Klich out: more of a Saiz than a Kalvin Phillips, someone in need of space to play in and a player who thrives beyond the halfway line. For a while before Bielsa, Leeds were in the habit of fashioning generic central midfielders. So heavy was the reliance on a number 10, before Christiansen and while he was head coach, that the club could rotate Klich, Phillips, Adam Forshaw, Ronaldo Vieira and Eunan O’Kane without any discernible difference in the deep-lying job they took on.

Klich, now, is an emblem of individualism and not the only one either. Bielsa has his enganche in Saiz but no longer isolates him between a withdrawn midfield line and a lone centre-forward. Phillips’ specialised holding role has prevented the scenario where two people fill the same remit. And Klich’s presence is something Leeds have not seen for some time: a centre-mid who consistently attacks the opposition’s box and makes a play of getting beyond the last man. Alex Mowatt was the last reliable goalscorer Leeds had in that position. There are few since Jonny Howson who have done what Klich tries to do.

The resurgence of Klich is not unique and football is littered with players who turned off one manager but enlightened another. What he has become is a product of pure coaching; of Bielsa’s ability to engage him, figure him out and find his niche. Overnight, a £1.5m signing is made to look cheap at double the price and Bielsa repays another portion of a salary package which is worth almost twice as much. Money well spent, but only they saw this coming.