'Marcelo Bielsa changed him' - the Polish view on Mateusz Klich, the man who graffitis and runs through walls for Leeds United

A year or so ago Mateusz Klich was sitting in a function suite at Elland Road discussing how different things were for him when he joined up with the national team.

Friday, 23rd October 2020, 5:45 am

His team-mates would tell him to stop running, but he couldn’t because it had been drummed into him so relentlessly at Leeds that it became second nature.

He still learned new things, however, when in the company of his fellow Polish internationals: “It’s a different way of playing, I have to think differently when I’m there but it’s no problem,” he said.

“If you’re a football player and you’re young, your dream is to play in the best league you can and for your country, especially now with a very strong team in Poland and players playing all over Europe in the best clubs.

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“It’s an honour to play, it’s good to be there, you can learn a lot from the big guys. I’m just proud.”

Klich now plays in the best league in England and, particularly given his fine start to life in the Premier League, can count himself among the ‘big boys’ of Polish football.

It’s not so much his newfound top-flight status that has elevated him in significance for Poland, but his transformation under Bielsa, who is a figure of fascination in Klich’s motherland like he is everywhere else in the footballing world. So much so in fact that when Klich returned to the international set-up after an absence, the press wanted to talk to him about little else.

“I went for the first national team after a long break and everyone was just asking about him, I was tired because they were asking about him, not about me or Leeds, just him,” said the midfielder.

NATIONAL TREASURE? The view of Mateusz Klich in his native Poland has changed, thanks to his Leeds United transformation. Pic: Getty

“He’s a very big name in football so I’m not surprised.”

Klich burst into the national limelight as a player with exciting prospects, attracting a Cracovia transfer record fee of €1.5m from German side Wolfsburg nine days after an international debut against Argentina.

“Klich is a well-respected and liked player,” said Polish football writer Christopher Lash. “That’s something that goes back a long time before playing for Bielsa’s Leeds. He’s been in and around the fringes of the Polish national team since 2011 when he left Cracovia for Wolfsburg.

He played a good amount of times for the national team when he did well and won the Dutch Cup in 2013/14 while at PEC Zwolle.

CLUB MAN - Mateusz Klich has become an ever-present part of Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United team and a popular player with Whites fans. Pic: Getty

“At that time, he was talked about a lot and that’s when he first scored for the Polish national side. After that he sort of disappeared off the radar a bit.”

Piotr Żelazny, editor in chief of Polish football magazine Kopalnia, says there were concerns in Poland that Klich would not reach his potential, after struggling to make an impact in a second spell at Wolfsburg and a subsequent 18-month stay with 1. FC Kaiserslautern.

“Klich started his career as a prodigy of Polish football,” he told The YEP.

“Back then, Klich was considered to be flair number 10 with fantasy and great technique. After leaving for the Bundesliga, he lacked the right approach. In subsequent clubs he failed and did not play.

“After a few disappointing years he was considered a wasted talent.”

Even a move to England failed to get the best out of the midfielder. Half a season at Elland Road brought just one Championship start, four substitute appearances and he was shipped off to FC Utrecht on loan.

Few could see a way back, until Bielsa arrived and found a player at Leeds that the club and Polish football didn’t fully realise they had.

What the Pole has gone on to do since has not gone unnoticed back home.

“The fact that such a famous international manager put so much trust in Klich immediately increased his standing in the Polish game,” said Lash. “The fact that he’s been playing so well, so regularly and has looked so physically good has been noticed by everyone, it’s pretty difficult not to notice it.

“Bielsa changed him, in every way,” added Żelazny.

“Klich himself admits that had he met Bielsa earlier, he would not have lost so many years.

“It was Bielsa who made him a pressing machine, a player who does not stop.”

Of course, the player himself had something to do with it, being willing and able to do the work required of a box-to-box midfielder in a Bielsa team. He hunts the ball when the opposition have it, snapping at ankles until Leeds win it back and has applied pressure to opposing players receiving, carrying or releasing the ball 119 times, seven times more than any other Premier League player this season.

Leeds have won possession 40 times within five seconds of Klich applying pressure and no player has managed more.

On the ball, he has completed 88 successful final-third passes, with only Andy Roberts [102], Mo Salah [96], Jack Grealish [90) and Bruno Fernandes [90} making more in Premier League action and he is often the one providing the last pass before a chance is created.

His ability in both halves of the pitch make him a rare specimen, according to the Argentine. It gives Poland options.

“He’s become one of the key midfielders in the Polish national team,” said Lash.

“There is some pretty strong competition with Grzegorz Krychowiak [Lokomotive Moscow], Karol Linetty [Torino] playing well in Serie A, Piotr Zieliński at Napoli and other younger players coming through, like Jakub Moder having been transferred to Brighton.

“With Zieliński out due to coronavirus, Klich got the opportunity to play further forward in the Bosnia game recently and he was considered close to being the man of the match, adding a great assist for one of Robert Lewandowski’s goals.

“Because of his good form for Leeds under Bielsa, the fact he’s so reliable and is now performing well to very well for the national team, he’ll definitely go to Euro 2021, barring injury, and will most probably start – although I’m not sure if that will be at ‘number six’ or ‘eight’ or further forward as a number 10.”

The October internationals were Klich’s best displays for his country in recent years, adds Żelazny, who saw two players enjoying playing with each other, in Klich’s link-up involvement with Lewandowski.

Lash sees an improved and improving player enjoying his football.

“In terms of an improvement in his play, well number one, his physical condition is clearly amazing, but then playing under Bielsa you have to have that,” he said.

“But secondly, I’d say his confidence is sky high and that’s clear when he’s on the pitch. Some Polish fans, until recently, were saying that Klich plays worse for the national team than he does for his club but, in the last international break, Klich and Poland played at a much higher standard than they had in the last year or two.

“Basically, he’s a key member of the national set-up now.”

Off the field, Klich is also what you might call a rare specimen.

An image of him puffing contentedly on a celebratory cigar after promotion was secured became Leeds United art, adorning the walls, phone covers and t-shirts of Whites fans.

He made his own, then at Elland Road, an enthusiasm for graffiti and the permission of club chiefs leading to a collaboration with local artist Meds to create a tribute to the 2019/20 Championship title.

“In Poland he’s seen as a different kind of footballer off the pitch, a bit of a hipster but also someone who’s a thinker and a bit of an intellectual,” said Lash.

“Very different from your classic vision of a footballer.”

The midfielder who spraypaints and runs through walls has a chance to become as loved at home as he is abroad and, with Bielsa as his muse, could leave a permanent, lasting mark on Polish international football.

At 30, Klich has time on his side to make up for the lost years.