Samuel Saiz can tell that his secret is out. He is no longer the diminutive blond-haired mystery who teams got to know on the job. Coaches talk about him pre and post-match. This season he has been on the end of more fouls than any other player in Leeds United’s squad.
It pays to thwart Saiz’s talent and Saiz can feel the Championship trying. Obscurity gave him freedom at the start of his first year in England but the attention he is attracting now might be at the root of his failure to score a league goal for 10 months.
“He’s one of the few players who can give us a solution,” Marcelo Bielsa said yesterday, extolling the midfielder’s creative mind. Other coaches think the same.
Bielsa is fielding Saiz in the position he suits, a playmaking role which indulges his desire to break from deep but keeps him prominent around the opposition’s box. “When you ask a player to do what he does the best, it's never a burden,” Bielsa said but there were times last month when Saiz looked overloaded; too crowded or too closely tracked to let his imagination tell.
There is no doubt in his head that he is being targeted, a player clubs plan to negate. Bielsa has said openly that when Leeds attack the final third, the first high-risk pass which tests their precision invariably falls to the feet of Saiz.
"I think it's a normal thing,” Saiz said. “When you play as a number 10 the rivals are always focused on you.
“It's right that last year, at the beginning of the season, players didn't know me and I had more freedom. This season and in the second half of last season I always have a mark on me. I’m always surrounded by people. But this is football.”
It did not constrain him in August, when Bielsa watched the tactical penny drop dramatically amongst his squad. Saiz was pivotal as Leeds took Stoke City apart and then ran riot at Derby County on an evening when the Spaniard was unplayable before half-time. In that particular game it was not difficult to see why only 11 Championship players have been fouled more often.
In the period, though, Saiz had Pablo Hernandez to his right. He and Hernandez are tigers of a different stripe: attacking, clever but different in their approach and the way they pull strings. Saiz has drawn 22 fouls so far and Hernandez, in the six games he has played, just two. There is no player in the squad who Bielsa rates more highly than Hernandez and, without results dropping to bits while he nursed a strained hamstring last month, the former Valencia winger was missed.
Tomorrow, away at Blackburn Rovers, Hernandez is primed to return. Bielsa insisted the pair could be “independent of each other” but there is a feeling amongst those who follow Leeds that Hernandez’s presence and the responsibility he takes on helps to yield the best of Saiz.
"When Pablo plays I'm not always the player who receives the first pass,” Saiz said. “Pablo makes very good movements to receive the first ball too. Of course I prefer that Pablo plays so I can have more freedom.
“But I think this season I'm more collective. I’m less of an individual and I work more for the team. I don't score as many goals as I wish but I don't do the individual actions that I used to do either. I think I’ve improved on other aspects.”
Saiz rarely speaks publicly and has not given an interview to an English media outlet since signing for Leeds from Huesca in the summer of 2017. He held a press conference at Thorp Arch yesterday with the help of Salim Lamrani, the French academic who works as Bielsa’s translator.
The past 12 months have been mixed for Saiz; scintillating at his best but humiliating when he was cited for spitting in an FA Cup tie in January and morale-sapping as last season’s early promise faded away. There were suggestions in Spain at the very start of this summer that Saiz, whose contract runs to 2021, was keen to go home and he lacked fitness, trailing behind in pre-season, after Bielsa first walked through the door.
Bielsa, though, has rejuvenated Saiz’s game and spirit and in the manner that Bielsa’s teams play, footballers of his ilk are crucial. United worked closely on their offensive tactics during the past fortnight, looking at way to draw blood with more regularity than they did in the second month of the terms. Six games brought nine points and only two wins and a 1-1 draw at Sheffield Wednesday, in a derby where Leeds had 25 shots on goal, showed Bielsa where the issue lay.
“The pre-season was very hard,” Saiz said. “Apart from Marcelo, all of the staff who came with him are very demanding. They implement their methods and they always focus on details so we become better players and better people.
"To tell you the truth, I feel I’m very lucky. I’m in a big city, a beautiful city. I feel love and feel gratitude from the fans. When you walk down the streets of Leeds and feel loved, it's great.
"It wasn’t very hard to settle here in England. My family is here with me, we play twice a week and what I like is playing football. I like football, I enjoy playing so I don't have time to think about settling.
“I think that this year all of the players are playing better. We’re combining better, we have a different style of play and we always control the game. We want to be the protagonist.” There is probably no player that mindset suits more.