Mateusz Klich on escaping Marcelo Bielsa's 'bomb squad' and taking friendly fire in the Leeds United dressing room
Before Mateusz Klich could prove to everyone that Victor Orta had bought exactly the right midfielder for Leeds United, he had to prove Marcelo Bielsa wrong.
The popularity the Pole enjoys today around the club and his status as a firm Bielsa favourite and ever-present first-team player contrasts so starkly with the reality that befell him when the Argentine first took over as head coach.
The summer of 2018 had seen Klich return to the club after half a season on loan at FC Utrecht, a move that had all-but ended his time with the Whites in the minds of fans and commentators alike.
He had vowed, when agreeing to the stint in Holland, to prove the club wrong and Bielsa’s arrival represented a fresh start, until of course Klich found himself as an experimental centre-half and fourth in line for a midfield slot.
“I was thinking of leaving, obviously,” he told the YEP after Monday morning’s training session and a team meeting at Thorp Arch.
“I was in the last group, I was in the bomb squad.”
His thoughts about a possible departure did not escalate to the point of attempting to leave, however, because that was not what he wanted. What he wanted was to show everyone at Leeds that he was not one of the club’s recruitment mistakes.
And for all the frustration that Bielsa’s initial impressions of him must have thrown up, Klich’s initial impressions of the head coach made him want to play Bielsaball. So he fought.
“I knew it was going to be a good couple of years in Leeds because he changed the club,” said Klich.
“The way he wanted to play football suited me, I wanted to play here for him.
“That’s why I gave everything I could on the training pitch and tried to prove him wrong, that I shouldn’t be in group two or group three, I should be with the first group.
“I knew it was going to be hard but I just didn’t give up.
“I told myself if I don’t make it, it’s going to be hard so I did everything I could to be there.
“Obviously with the injuries I was lucky as well and here I am. I made it.”
Bielsa takes no credit for Klich’s redemption story, crediting Orta, the player and luck – it was only through injuries to others that Klich was handed a chance to play in midfield for the pre-season friendly against Las Palmas that changed everything.
He took the chance, ran with it and hasn’t stopped running since, playing the box-to-box role in every league game of Bielsa’s tenure bar one – he missed Derby County at the end of last season having partied as hard celebrating promotion as he worked to win it.
Leeds’ ascent to the Premier League has only enhanced Klich’s importance to Bielsa and the team. He’s racking up more defensive duels than anyone else in the side, creating chances against elite defences and running, always running.
“Klich for me is a player that can play in all the best teams in the world,” said Bielsa late last month, suggesting that the point Klich was trying to make in the Elland Road boardroom in January 2018 has been proven beyond all reasonable doubt.
Coming from the lips of a man who chooses his words so carefully and a coach who has worked with some of the game’s greats, it was a an enormous compliment and a huge statement, although Klich himself has no designs on playing for any other team in the world.
“Maybe [I would have believed it] when I was 22 years old,” he laughed.
“I’m just happy being here and playing in the Premier League because that was my dream and my goal. Obviously it’s nice when the manager says things like that but on the other hand the next morning in the dressing room it was fun for me. It doesn’t really look like I’m moving anywhere.”
The unintended consequence of Bielsa’s praise, the dressing room ribbing Klich endured, is more proof he belongs.
Leeds is home, Klich is furniture and Bielsaball is a way of life. How it started wasn’t ideal, how it’s going is as close to idyllic as it gets.
“He told me a couple of similar things when we had individual meetings and he analysed my game,” said Klich.
“I know what he thinks of me and what he expects me to do.
“I’m trying to do everything he wants because I enjoy playing for him. It’s a good way of playing football, I don’t want to say the right one because every manager has his own way, but I enjoy it.”