THe second half of last season left Samuel Saiz cold, to the extent that he felt himself giving up on it eventually. Some who know him well in Spain thought one year in England was as much as he would take, barring a change of head coach at Leeds United and a press of the reset button in May.
Saiz got Marcelo Bielsa, the first elite manager he has actively played under, and it is hard to think of an appointment which would have floated his boat in quite the same way: a Spanish speaker with continental knowledge and a coach whose collective methods leave room for the off-the-cuff thinking which sets Saiz apart.
Saiz cuts an unorthodox footballer; small and stocky with deceptive pace from a standing start and a low centre of gravity (which no playmaker is truly complete without). Izzy Brown’s first experience of marshalling him in training was to find that Saiz was often impossible to dispossess. For Bielsa’s part, no player in his squad exudes more natural skill, though it is never clear if natural talent is the trait the 63-year-old values most.
There is, in addition, reassurance for someone like Saiz in Bielsa’s reticence when it comes to discussing the faults of his players. His explanation for substituting Gjanni Alioski at half-time twice in the space of a few days two weeks ago came across as a gentle ruffling of the winger’s blonde hair and that culture should have Saiz in his element, with the freedom to blow hot and cold without being beaten like a carpet in public. Consistency is what the Spaniard lacks but the best of him without coughs and splutters would be beyond the spending power of most Championship clubs, and far beyond the spending power of Leeds.
Bielsa’s comments about Saiz last weekend, then, broke from convention, eliciting the admission that Saiz was down on confidence and playing within himself (the second issue presumably caused by the first). It is not Bielsa’s style to speak like that or to say anything without calculated thought and there was something about his statement which felt like a reminder for Saiz, a crack of the whip aimed at a player who has been cut adrift of a squad with impetus. “I expect from him the capacity to beat an opponent,” Bielsa said. “He needs to find his capacity to make the difference.”
Beating opponents was Saiz’s forte in August, a month as good as any other in his brief career at Elland Road, and the timeline which shows that he has failed to score in a league match since last November obscures the nature of what Saiz does. He has dabbled in goals over the years but August showcased his running; the penchant for breaking from deep and going past players, opening up the field in an instant.
I expect from him the capacity to beat an opponent. He needs to find his capacity to make the difference.Marcelo Bielsa
Leeds were able to rely on him doing so three times a game in the first six of the season. In his last nine starts, Bielsa have been lucky to see Saiz do it once. There were no beat-a-man dribbles at all from him against QPR on Saturday and Bielsa did not need the benefit of post-match analysis to spot that. Some of Saiz’s passing was insightful, leaving QPR’s defenders staring at each other, but Derby County know how it goes when Saiz leaves recovering players trailing in the dust behind him.
It is a hard, physically-challenging way to play, as Bielsa’s football tends to be, and Saiz would not tout himself the outstanding athlete at Thorp Arch. He was lagging behind the rest of the squad when they went through their earliest running sessions in the summer and in body fat tests where Leeds’ set 10 per cent as the target – a benchmark which Premier League sides endeavour to stay under – Saiz is among the players who fall short of it, behind those at the top end of the list: Lewis Baker, Kemar Roofe, Mateusz Klich and Adam Forshaw. Bielsa has long been stalked by the perception that his teams are prone to burnout as a consequence of his tactics but it is arguable that Saiz was least likely to cope with his uncompromising regime, or as likely as anyone to fade in and out.
There are other factors on top of that, like the raft of fouls committed on a midfielder who was an obvious target when the season started and a magnet by the end of its first month. Saiz has been fouled more than anyone else at Leeds and in a direct comparison with the unyielding influence of Pablo Hernandez, it is telling that infringements involving Hernandez are almost six times lower: 34 fouls on Saiz versus six on his compatriot. The trend continued against QPR – Saiz brought down six times, Hernandez not once – and he is in a vicious circle of trying to rediscover form and self-assurance while hacking boots fly around him.
The situation will be eating at Saiz because one thing he made clear when he spoke a couple of months ago is that he takes the troughs to heart. He characterised his attitude from January onwards as “having less motivation” but demoralised might have been a better translation; the slumped shoulders of a players whose body language suggests the dips in influence matter. The second half of last season was a washout for Saiz. The second half of this is set up for him to inspire a pace which stretches and breaks the Championship’s chasing pack. It will pay for Leeds to make him believe that he can.