Mateusz Klich left Holland in May telling journalists there he had “unfinished business” at Leeds United so his resurgence in these parts is not accidental. But in finding favour with Marcelo Bielsa and surviving the pruning of the squad at Elland Road, the Poland international has beaten some fairly long odds against him.
There were reasons why Klich started Sunday’s win over Stoke City and at the moment where he needed a break, he found himself in the right place at the right time. Adam Forshaw was injured, out for up to eight weeks, and Ronaldo Vieira’s sale to Sampdoria a few days earlier deprived Bielsa of a player he would rather have kept.
“We had a series of circumstances,” said United’s head coach, putting it mildly.
As it transpired, neither Forshaw nor Vieira were missed. Klich was instrumental in employing Bielsa’s high press and the midfielder’s gamble in getting beyond the last man paid off when he drove home the first goal on 16 minutes. Klich featured as the right point of a diamond during his loan at Utrecht last season but wanted to occupy a more attacking position, the role given to him by Bielsa on Sunday.
“He told me that he’d love to play more in the centre, as a number 10,” said Tim Reedijk, a football writer with AD in Holland. “But he would also say ‘I’ll just try to adapt in the team.’ Utrecht already had a lot of options in the centre so they used him as a right midfielder.”
Despite making so little impact in England last season, Klich’s stock was recognised in Holland after a good year with FC Twente – the club Leeds signed him from for £1.5m a year ago – and an earlier spell with PEC Zwolle. His career had been through Wolfsburg and Kaiserslautern in Germany and given him some pedigree on the continent. When Utrecht signed him in January, their manager Jean-Paul De Jong said: “His qualities are beyond dispute.”
Leeds cut him loose after four league appearances and the hospital pass of a rare outing in their embarrassing FA Cup defeat at Newport County. Klich has since spoken of issues between him and former head coach Thomas Christiansen, claiming the Dane sidelined him and stopped communicating after Klich’s loss of footing cost Leeds the opening goal in a 3-1 defeat to Cardiff City in September, his only league start before Sunday.
He had signalled his disillusionment with a pointed post on Twitter after failing to make the squad for a trip to Barnsley in November, a game for which Vieira was suspended.
Klich told Polish outlet SportoweFakty: “Officially, Thomas Christiansen did not say anything to me (about his mistake at Cardiff) but then he practically stopped speaking to me and did not call me into the team for the next games. I could have guessed that it was because of this situation.”
At Utrecht, Klich inspired more confidence in De Jong. De Jong used him 16 times as Utrecht finished fifth in the Eredivisie table and Klich’s performance stats held up well: two shots on goal a game and two key passes a game, including 11 in one fixture against Heracles in April. His pass completion rate come in at 83 per cent.
We have to admit he played well. But he still has many skills he needs to use and show us.Marcelo Bielsa on Mateusz Klich
When Leeds loaned Klich out, they gave thought to negotiating an option allowing Utrecht to sign the 28-year-old permanently. Klich’s contract at Elland Road runs to 2020 but at that stage, two weeks before Christiansen’s dismissal, he looked thoroughly surplus.
“Utrecht would have loved to have kept him for longer,” Reedijk said, “but they knew they were going to lose him. When I asked him if a longer stay at Utrecht was an option for him, he told me he had some unfinished business at Leeds.”
Dispatches from Thorp Arch at the start of this pre-season indicated that Klich had knuckled down under Bielsa.
Having been placed initially in a group of Under-23s and fringe senior professionals – those first-team players who Bielsa was undecided on – he stepped into the main group quickly and played regularly, albeit in only one of the games in which United’s head coach fielded his strongest line-up.
Bielsa said Klich’s contribution to a 4-3 win at Guiseley on July 26, the penultimate match of the summer, had caught his eye.
“We saw a big, positive change in his game,” Bielsa said. “I saw he had many skills similar to Forshaw’s.”
A fully-fit Forshaw was a guaranteed starter against Stoke.
Vieira, too, would have been in contention to drop into midfield ahead of Klich had Leeds not opted to sell him to Sampdoria for £7.7m.
Bielsa’s preference was to keep Vieira but Andrea Radrizzani, the club’s owner, admitted last week that the 20-year-old’s sale was necessary to keep United in a good financial position.
Leeds have been looking at central midfielders ahead of today’s deadline for permanent transfers but are yet to line up any full-time deals.
In the meantime, Klich can expect another run at Derby County on Saturday. In his mind, Bielsa has two players lined up for each position on the pitch but the conviction of Leeds’ display against Stoke did not call for many changes.
“His (Klich’s) game had good things and less good things,” Bielsa said. “We have to admit he played well. But he still has many skills he needs to use and show us.”