By the 62nd minute it was plain to see why Leeds United showed so much patience in their long pursuit of Samuel Saiz’s signature. Time, sweat and £3million was rewarded spectacularly by a hat-trick on his debut at Elland Road last night.
Saiz came with that reputation when he signed from Huesca – a creative number 10 who likes a goal – and his reputation was why Leeds spent weeks piecing together his transfer from Spain. Let loose for the first time, Saiz drove United into round two of the Carabao Cup with three lovely finishes and a general masterclass. The masterclass reverberated more than the result.
Thomas Christiansen, Leeds’ head coach, wanted progression through the opening stage an his side were making heavy weather of a clash with Port Vale until two well-chosen substitutes injected magic into the tie but the Championship is what matters at Elland Road and United’s success on that front rests on the quality of the influx of players recruited this summer.
Saiz was as expensive as any, taken on a four-year deal from Spain, and repayment began in style with three goals which begged the question of whether Christiansen can justify leaving him out when Preston North End come to Leeds on Saturday.
The midfielder, a livewire all evening, opened the scoring in the 13th minute as Vale tied themselves in knots and he broke the back of the League Two club on the hour by creating a goal out of little with two deft touches in the box.
Two minutes later, Vale’s net bulged again as Elland Road feted a new sensation and a competitive match was done. Caleb Ekuban added a fourth goal for good measure after a piercing run from Gianni Alioski and Vale finished with 10 players as Gunning dived in on Alioski and incurred a second yellow card.
In black last night were a few members of Neil Warnock’s old guard and thoughts of that aimless era made Leeds look shiny and new but there is some life left in the players who carried the club out of Ken Bates’ tenure as chairman.
Leeds avoided an upset but not without breaking sweat and not without some devilment from Michael Brown et al. Vale’s manager, a midfielder whose years at United were not his easiest or finest, did what Warnock was always good at doing, fighting the odds and threatening to find a way.
The night was set up for Leeds when Saiz, on a tidy debut, scored but another old boy, Michael Tonge, brought Vale level before half-time by finishing off the sort of direct attack which old-school managers thrive on. Bolton Wanderers found weakness in United via high balls into their box on Sunday and Tonge was waiting to finish off a throw-in after the delivery caught Leeds in a disorganised state.
Christiansen had given Vale a sniff with nine changes to his team, doing what Championship managers invariably do in the early rounds of the League Cup, but he is stretched defensively and the end of Pontus Jansson’s three-match suspension should shore up the rear of his line-up. Leeds had enough possession to take the League Two club apart before half-time last night but their progression to round two was in the balance before Saiz pulled rank. From nowhere, the final half-hour turned into exhibition football.
Christiansen did not hold back in shuffling his line-up and only the absence of Rob Green from the teamsheet caused any surprise.
The goalkeeper, Leeds’ outright number one last season, was carrying a minor injury but the elevation of Felix Wiedwald to the starting line-up at Bolton on Sunday left a question mark hanging over Green’s future.
Now 37, Green is in the twilight of his playing career and was widely expected to seek a move elsewhere if Wiedwald forced him from the team this month. Leeds for their part are sympathetic to the fact that Green has too little time left to waste a season on the bench but Marco Silvestri’s sale to Hellas Verona three weeks ago narrowed the scope for Green to move on.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell occupied a place on the bench last night, behind Wiedwald who enjoyed a quiet night until Vale put the cat among the pigeons on 36 minutes. Brown sat the grey-haired Tonge in front of his defence as a means of extra protection but there was little any of his players could do when goalkeeper Rob Lainton misjudged a cross from Stuart Dallas in the 13th minute.
Dallas’ delivery confused Lainton and cracked off the inside of his far post, sitting up nicely for Saiz who volleyed the ball home with a deflection off the same upright. A gift of a goal was Vale’s worst-case scenario and Leeds sprayed the ball around amid little in the way of a threat towards Wiedwald.
United dictated possession under limited pressure, laying on half-chances for Vurnon Anita and Caleb Ekuban which went begging, but Vale cracked Christiansen’s defence in direct fashion eight minutes before the break. Gavin Gunning’s long throw was flicked on twice and Tonge was waiting at the far post, ready to lash the dropping ball past Wiedwald. Five long years ago, the midfielder was scoring at Elland Road in a League Cup win over Southampton.
Christiansen’s backline was of the makeshift variety, with Conor Shaughnessy at the start of it and Borthwick-Jackson introduced on the left, and Vale almost picked it open for a second time early in the second half when Pyke skipped around Anita. Anton Forrester arrived at close range but failed to apply a proper touch.
Just before the hour, however, Liam Bridcutt replaced Mateusz Klich and Alioski stepped in for an ineffective Hadi Sacko and the change of pace was instant.
Sam Hornby, who had replaced Lainton at half-time, turned one effort from Alioski behind and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson’s header from the resulting corner was beaten off the line but Saiz wrapped up the tie with two beautiful finishes in the space of two minutes.
The first came via a through-ball from Ronaldo Vieira, freeing Saiz to skip around Hornby and slide the ball in from a tight angle, and the second nestled in the far corner after Saiz’s clever movement carried him onto a flick from Ekuban 12 yards from goal.
Game over there and then after the sort of debut new signings dream of and Ekuban made something of his own six minutes from the end when Alioski covered 70 yards, Saiz stepped over his low cut-back and the Ghanaian striker tucked a shot away.