The name ‘Mateusz Klich’ is one met with smiles and praise from Leeds United fans.
The Polish international is the engine of Marcelo Bielsa’s side. In the Argentine’s tenure at Elland Road, over 100 games, Klich has started in all but one of those matches, a true testament to his ability and fitness, as well as the faith Bielsa holds in him. Be it his ball retention, his eye for the occasional, beautiful goal, or the man that is Mateusz Klich, the one who has wholeheartedly fallen in love with Leeds United, fans have nothing but praise on Klich’s overall game, which makes it all the more surprising to think back to his beginnings at Leeds United, where one poor performance almost resulted in a swift exit from the club.
Klich was signed from FC Twente in 2017, the first signing of Thomas Christiansen’s reign.
Not the most known name, at least to Leeds fans, but any depth to the side, especially any depth with international experience, would be much appreciated by Leeds fans who at the time were hopeful for a promotion push, such dreams spurred on by the new ownership of Andrea Radrizzani. The Leeds midfield, at the time, was populated by Ronaldo Vieira, Eunan O’Kane, and Kalvin Phillips, meaning Klich was forced to wait for his time to make a proper impact in the side, a collective 47 minutes in substitute appearances obviously not being enough for fans and spectators to form any sort of opinion. Klich’s first start for Leeds came in a September away clash at Cardiff. At the time, Leeds were at the top of the table, Cardiff in third. United had been an impressive watch and, up to that point of the season, a dominant force in the league. A win at promotion rivals Cardiff would have gone a long way in convincing even the most sceptical of Leeds fans that they would have a real shot at promotion.
Klich’s first start was his chance to prove to fans why he deserved a place in the side, and the stakes of the match could hardly be any higher.
Leeds seemed disorganized as an eleven in the tie, lacking offensive consistency and being consistently pressed by Warnock’s Bluebirds. In the 28th minute, Mateusz Klich was at the by-line, just inside his own half, when he slipped under relatively minimal pressure. Loic Damour dispossessed the Polish midfielder, his pass to Junior Hoilett allowing the Canadian to set up Kenneth Zohore for the first goal of the game. Leeds would go on to lose 3-1 and would slip to fourth in the table, never to reclaim that top spot again in the 2017/18 season. As for Mateusz Klich, he was substituted for Ronaldo Vieira in the 67th minute and would not make another appearance for the Whites until an away match at Birmingham, just over three months later, playing for a brief 21 minutes in a 1-0 defeat for Leeds at St. Andrew’s.
The mistake at Cardiff was presenting itself as the definer for Klich. No mention of his name went without discussion of his poor performance in Wales, with fans glad of his absence from the starting eleven. In January 2018, only seven months after making the move to West Yorkshire, Klich was loaned out to FC Utrecht until the end of the season, with only five league appearances under his belt. Klich’s name, from then on, went on to become a distant memory in the minds of Leeds United fans, their heads clouded more so with their gradual, but apparent, drop down the table.
After his loan move, Mateusz Klich most likely could have gone one of two ways; restore and better himself in the Eredivisie, or remain shrouded and worsened by that mistake against Cardiff. After thankfully going down the first path, Klich scored one goal whilst also notching three assists in the 14 games he went on to play for FC Utrecht, losing only three of the games in which he played as he and his team finished fifth that season. His parent club, meanwhile, had let their early season form slip, languishing throughout the second half of the season and finishing in a measly 13th place, their ever-faithful fans lamenting another wasted season.
The introduction of El Loco.
To the surprise of none and the relief of many, Leeds manager Paul Heckingbottom was sacked at the end of the season. His replacement, Marcelo Bielsa, came into the club at a time where it seemed increasingly likely that Mateusz Klich would leave the club. At 28, Klich had narrowly missed out on European football with Utrecht and a move to a league, presumably the Eredivisie, would bolster his chances at playing in Europe, far more so than remaining in the Championship would, where outside of a cup run, the potential for such football is impossible. It came as a massive surprise to fans when, in Bielsa’s first game in charge of the Whites against newly-relegated Stoke City, Mateusz Klich was named to the starting eleven, starting in a central midfield role alongside Kalvin Phillips, slightly behind the attacking midfield line of Alioski, Saiz and Hernandez. Something about Bielsa’s system worked wonders with Klich, his career galvanised by the Argentine. Klich would score a goal in each of the opening two fixtures, his first of ten goals that season, as he quickly established himself as one of Leeds’ best midfield options. Klich too would also gain eight assists that season as Leeds went on to finish third in the table.
Whilst they may have lost the playoff semi-final that season, the development of Mateusz Klich, to fans, had been revolutionary. A midfielder, whose confidence had been drained after one poor performance resulted in him having one foot out of the door at Leeds, had now cemented himself in Bielsa’s Leeds side. Klich’s offensive side of his game blossomed in a system that allowed him to attack as a number 8, dictating attacking moves with his driving runs, flair and passing abilities at both long and short distances. Klich’s game is too further benefitted by his fitness, something that aids him and his longevity, but particularly his fit in Bielsa’s system that is so dependent on stamina. Klich featured in all 46 games in the 2018-19 season, his position stapled, his value emphasised, his consecutive game streak destined to go on.
In the title-winning campaign that was the 2019-20 season, Klich scored another six goals for Leeds whilst also earning himself five assists, a season in which he missed only one game, a 3-1 victory over Derby played not long after Leeds had been confirmed as champions. In a season successful for the team as a whole, Klich saw his game develop even further. Reveling in the Bielsa-ball system and his footballing ideology, Klich saw his role as the aggressive pressing, quick passing midfielder come even more into fruition. He made around 48 passes a game (up one pass from the previous season), held the joint third-highest key pass rate at 1.8 per game, whilst also holding the third highest tackle rate in the side at 1.9 successful tackles a game, demonstrating a mastery of the demands Bielsa had of his number 8 role with a playstyle he has carried through to the Premier League, showing off his complete ability at the highest level of the game.
Be it through stats, watching his game, or both, the beauty and talent of Klich’s overall game is no mystery to fans nor neutrals.
His role in Bielsa’s side is akin to that of Kalvin Phillips, not in its style, but its uniqueness. In the same way Leeds have no true backup for Phillips, they too have no true backup to Mateusz Klich, a player so capable at both ends of the pitch whose elite stamina is integral to the Leeds system. It is baffling to think back to that dreary game in Cardiff when Klich almost threw his chances at potential Premier League football away, especially when compared to the irreplaceable value he now brings to Elland Road and the ever-present love between him and his fans.