Why Marcelo Bielsa setting precedent with his treatment of Leeds United man was as much about club as country

Take the rest of the week off, Mateusz. Pardon, Marcelo?

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 7:18 am
BIG FINISH - Mateusz Klich has been given early leave after his goalscoring performance for Leeds United at Burnley. Pic: Getty

Mateusz Klich maybe didn’t take the risk of asking Marcelo Bielsa to repeat himself when he granted the midfielder early leave at Thorp Arch on Sunday, maybe he sprinted to the car and sped in the direction of Walton Road, waving cheerily at the gateman as the chorus of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’ filled the air.

School is out early for Klich, and his old FC Kaiserslautern pal Robin Koch, thanks to the benevolence of their gaffer.

The decision to rest Koch, who even recently was still feeling the expected after-effects of knee surgery and had picked up a minor hip problem to boot, would not have raised many eyebrows.

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Leeds have been careful with the former SC Freiburg man, as they are with all players returning from serious injuries and surgery, as they have been with Gaetano Berardi and Adam Forshaw.

If there was a chance that involvement in the final two games of the Premier League season, two games that cannot change Leeds’ league status or realistically grant them European football next season, could exacerbate Koch’s injury, then he was never going to take part.

Bielsa is given the reputation of a taskmaster because of the fitness of his players and the almost mythical status given to murderball, but taking risks with the health of his players has not been his way. Recently he's been talking extensively about why it's not always in the best interests of a player to get match minutes even if they're healthy again after injury. Being in the best condition to play well trumps coming straight back in and playing poorly.

Koch’s hopes of playing in the European Championships have been boosted by those two games against Brighton and Spurs and this week off, before the start of Germany’s pre-tournament camp, will ensure those hopes remain intact until Joachim Löw makes his squad announcement.

When it comes to Klich, as Bielsa says there is no current injury, so the news that he was released from club duty a week prior to the conclusion of the season has come as more of a surprise. The announcement, made in Monday’s 9am press conference to preview tonight’s visit to Southampton, certainly made more waves than the usual team news and injury updates.

Yet, as conclusions go, it feels just about perfect.

This season has been up and down for Klich, which in itself was perhaps to be expected. His experience of playing at the top level for Poland aside, the 30-year-old is one of a number in the Leeds team to arrive in the ‘best league in the world’ relatively late in his career. He was, for the Premier League, an unknown and untested quality.

Test him it did. He made a fine start to the campaign with a number of very solid performances, full of his trademark energy, complete with his customary eye-watering running distances and the little, neat passes that help Leeds build attacks anywhere on the pitch.

There was a dip and there were difficulties to overcome – of course there were, given the elite nature of the opposition any given week. At times it looked a little like the man whose mother was a decorated swimmer was treading water, unable to find the rhythm that made him so vital to the Leeds midfield and incapable of finding his range to add goals from his department.

There were, it must be noted, injuries to contend with and, at the same time, it should be pointed out that, despite the knocks, he has remained available for each and every Premier League fixture, playing some of them through the pain barrier.

Pressing world-class players is hard enough without carrying a physical weakness.

But, after a run of five games as a used substitute, games in which he played, at most, 18 minutes, Klich proved what Bielsa once said about a player’s level going up, down and then up again.

His performance against the might of Spurs was much more like it and at Burnley, a wonderful goal aside, he did very well again.

“It’s very difficult to maintain your level in a competition that is so long and competitive,” said Bielsa earlier in the season.

“Of course players have highs and lows which is natural. To play in the Premier League always demands you to be strong mentally. You can’t play at this level without personality or character.”

Klich has both, in abundance, and, by returning to form and finally scoring that goal, his first since December, he was in a great place when Bielsa called time on his domestic season.

What better way than to go into a major European tournament than on a high and in form? Paulo Sousa will doubtless be grateful to receive a player who is fit, rested and, maybe most important of all, happy.

As for Leeds, the removal of Klich is as much about club as it is country. Bielsa is looking after an asset who is part of the 2021/22 plans and, with this precedent set, don’t be surprised if others with any hint of a knock or potential Euros selection are given the same treatment after the Saints game. Pre-season, not just international football, must be in his thinking.

Presumably one of Rodrigo, Tyler Roberts or Jamie Shackleton, will now get an opportunity to state their own case, whether that’s future first-team involvement or national-team inclusion, while Klich puts up his feet at the end of a marathon three-season shift.

He should relish each and every minute. More hard work lies around the corner.