The air of tension that surrounds the Championship’s promotion race is a familiar one and as Leeds United fans watched their side win 3-1 at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday afternoon, checks on Griffin Park were regular as Marcelo Bielsa’s side aim to shake off Brentford’s threat as the Premier League looms.
Leeds are in the driving seat in the race for the top-two, but Thomas Frank is getting a fine tune out of Brentford and since the season restarted last month, they haven’t dropped a point or conceded a goal. It’s not quite been that flawless at Leeds, but Bielsa’s side are doing enough.
As Brentford added to Wigan’s woe in West London, Leeds brushed Blackburn aside thanks to goals from Patrick Bamford, Kalvin Phillips and Mateusz Klich. A tough away day on paper at Ewood Park, but a challenge met by Bielsa’s players at full speed, with Leeds on top from the start.
Key to that fast start was Mateusz Klich. The Polish international is so consistent, but even he admits that his standards have slipped since the restart and a tough evening against Luton Town on Tuesday was as bad as we’ve seen from the 30-year-old under Bielsa. However, that was all forgotten on Saturday as an all-action display – as our graphic shows – in Lancashire reminded just how key the midfielder is:
It was classic Klich from the first whistle and we only had to wait seven minutes before his first key contribution at Ewood Park. From a Blackburn throw, Lewis Travis took a fraction too long on the ball, inviting Klich to press him and overturn possession. From there, the midfielder knew what to do, sliding Bamford into a shooting position and watching on as his teammate dispatched his 15th goal of the season.
That set the tone for Leeds and Klich, with his performance built on the back of that press. There was another shot assist provided for Tyler Roberts later in the first-half as Leeds preyed on Blackburn’s failure to keep the ball in their own half, whilst the Polish international also retained possession nicely and, as usual, caused problems with his willing running.
Recovering the ball as high up the field as possible is Klich’s job and that helped tee up Bamford, but the second-half saw his interception tally expand as Leeds squeezed the life out of Blackburn’s attacking patterns.
And, Klich was rewarded for a return to his best with a goal of his own on 53 minutes. Phillips and Adam Armstrong had exchanged free-kicks either side of half-time, with the latter’s effort giving Blackburn a sniff in a game they could have been out of by the break. However, responding not long after at the other end was Klich, who punched a shot towards goal, catching Christian Walton off-guard and beating the Blackburn goalkeeper to restore a two-goal lead.
This was Klich at his best and the reason why he’s continued to be a key cog in Bielsa’s side since the start of last season; he sets the tempo of a performance, wears down the opposition and plays his football in the right areas of the field. As the below heat map from Wyscout shows, Klich’s average position is often in the final third and in the type of pockets where he can cause real damage with goals, assists and key passes.
In many ways, Klich is Bielsa’s dream player: he’s strong with and without possession, he can run you into the ground, he knows when to hold the ball and he knows when to release it. The 30-year-old is approaching 100 consecutive starts now and, simply, you don’t achieve that sort of feat at this level without a crucial contribution and the faith of your head-coach.
We’ve been told in the past: ‘If you watch the game, you don’t see Klich. If you watch Klich, you see the whole game’, which couldn’t be more accurate when you break down Saturday’s efforts. When he’s off the boil, Leeds can struggle to assert themselves properly on a game, just like the meeting with Luton last week. However, when you’re getting a performance of this level out of Klich, you often find a Leeds victory on 90 minutes.
Frank can continue to get a tune out of his Brentford side in the coming five games and it might be enough to catch West Brom, but if Bielsa can get this tune out of Klich, Leeds look an unstoppable force and results elsewhere will not matter.
Klich is the heartbeat of the side and continuing to set the tone like this in the five remaining games will stop the tension, which so often gets the better of Leeds, becoming unbearable.