Historically, Leeds United have been at their best when combining steel with grace. This season, thanks primarily to the summer signing of Samuel Saiz, that combination has been revived.
In the 1960s and 70s, when the club frequently topped the English First Division and threatened to conquer Europe, they did so with a spine featuring Norman Hunter, Jonny Giles and Billy Bremner, all of whom were both technical and combative.
In the 1990s, when Leeds won the last title before the Premier League, Gordon Strachan’s sublime footwork and Gary McAllister’s mesmeric passing were complemented by the aerial force and directness of Lee Chapman.
In the 2000s, when David O’Leary steered the club to the semi-finals of both the Champions League and UEFA Cup, the grit and energy of Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith were effectively married with the artistry of Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell.
Last season, Leeds looked a lot more like the ‘Dirty Leeds’ many have always viewed them as, regardless of the quality of their passing or the ingenuity of their attacking. Garry Monk installed a basic 4-4-1-1 shape with high levels of compactness and defensive organisation. Consequently, his team had the fourth-best goals conceded record in the Championship and pushed for promotion.
Unsurprisingly in such an environment, the heroes of the campaign were Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley. Both were solid centre-backs; the former a showman who made heading an art form, the latter a subtle but commanding presence who led through his actions.
So when Thomas Christiansen and Victor Orta were brought in as new head coach and director of football over the summer, the steel was already there. They just needed to add grace. And, when Saíz was brought in from the Spanish second tier to fill an important attacking midfield role, they did just that.
ANALYSING SAÍZ’S ROLE
Out of all the permanent additions made by Leeds in the summer, Saíz was the second most expensive. Only Jansson arrived for a fee higher than the £3.15million paid to sign the Spaniard. Following on from whispers of this lithe attacker being the best player in Spain outside of La Liga, the fee only further heightened expectations.
And yet the 26-year-old had an inconspicuous beginning to his time at Elland Road. He was on the substitutes’ bench for both of the team’s opening two league fixtures – the 3-2 win away to Bolton Wanderers and the 0-0 draw at home to Preston North End. However, between those games, he did hint at his quality.
On 9 August he made his debut for Leeds in an EFL Cup first round clash with Port Vale. He scored a hat-trick. Each goal evidenced cunning movement, brilliant ball control, precise finishing and sound decision-making. The man signed from Huesca had stated his case for a starting spot.
In truth, Christiansen was never going to be short on attacking midfielders. But none ever looked quite as complete as Saíz. Pablo Hernández has the creativity, but not the acceleration; Kemar Roofe has the fluid movement, but not the awareness; Ezgjan Aloski has the work ethic, but not the precision.
Leeds have continued with the same rough system as last season, only now they make better use of their attacking abundance. The wingers are no longer workers; they are bona fide offensive players capable of beating their opposite men through skill or sheer athleticism. Saíz has been granted the No.10 role, and he hasn’t disappointed.
One of the most crucial changes in the team’s play brought about through his involvement is that they can now progress attacks through the centre without fear. Thanks to his touch and intelligence, central midfielders Kalvin Philipps and Eunan O’Kane can play passes through the opposition midfield safe in the knowledge that the ball will not be lost.
Saíz maximises every last centimetre of space and every last millisecond of time. Perhaps due to his stature – he stands at just under 5ft 9ins – there is no other way. Under pressure, with his back to goal and without the physique to hold off attentive markers, his brain and feet do the work his upper body cannot. At the very least he keeps possession ticking over; at best he beats his man and creates a scoring chance for himself or a team-mate.
He relishes the freedom of his role, moving laterally and vertically to make himself available and connect play. And, in one-on-one situations, he is almost impossible to defend against. In the recent defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, he was subject to late tackles and misplaced shoulders. He still completed five dribbles, which was far more than anybody else on the pitch could boast.
In nine Championship appearances, Saíz has just two goals and two assists. That, some might argue, is a fairly moderate haul considering his role within, and importance to, the team. But, whenever the diminutive Spaniard does contribute, it tends to make a difference.
He scored one and set up the other in the 2-0 win away to Sunderland in August. He also provided an assist for Philipps in the 3-2 win over Ipswich Town in September. Thus, it could be argued that his final third output has added four points to Leeds’ overall tally. Without that, they would be 11th, not fifth, in the league table right now.
The underlying statistics give a greater indication of Saíz’s impact upon the team.
Only centre-forward Pierre-Michel Lasogga has created more.
Then there is the unmeasurable impact Saíz has had at Elland Road. Last season was exciting because results were better than they had been for many years. Promotion seemed a genuine possibility; at times it even felt like a probability. But those wins and points were, in the main, thanks to an ability to grind down and churn out opponents.
The relentlessness of Monk’s 2016/17 edition has been succeeded by a more aesthetically appealing style. Christiansen can be thanked for that, but a large amount of the exhilaration has been down to the new No.10.
Saíz is at the heart of the team’s attacking play. There is an almost tangible anticipation surrounding his every touch. Fans expect him to do something magical, to drive the team forward with a flick or trick. And there is a growing sense that, thanks to this newfound grace, Leeds can break down any Championship opponent.