Mateusz Klich: Reinvigorated In The Double Pivot
In this piece, Josh Hobbs discusses Mateusz Klich’s new role under Jesse Marsch, exploring the impact this may have for Leeds’ number 43…
There will be a number of players who will go down as integral to Marcelo Bielsa’s time at Leeds United. Pablo Hernandez was the magician in the Championship, providing the magic touch when Leeds needed to create something from nothing. Kalvin Phillips fitted the defensive midfield position so well that the role was simply renamed ‘the Phillips role’ in Bielsa’s system. Patrick Bamford led the press and carried the main goalscoring burden. Luke Ayling drove the ball forwards from right back. Stuart Dallas played everywhere.
However, if you had to pick just one player to sum up the Bielsa era at Leeds, there’s a strong argument to pick Mateusz Klich. The Polish midfielder started in every single game of Bielsa’s two seasons in the Championship, apart from the game immediately after promotion was confirmed, when he appeared to party harder than any of his teammates.
Klich’s influence has waned a little in the Premier League, and he lost his place in the starting XI to Dallas midway through 2020/21. However, he still managed 3,826 minutes over 56 appearances in the division under Bielsa. Despite all the minutes the Pole has played, when considering how Leeds might rebuild the squad in the summer, Klich seemed like one of the players who might move on. In fact, their January pursuit of RB Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson suggested Leeds already had a direct replacement in mind.
Since Jesse Marsch took over from Bielsa recently, the picture may well have changed. This is due to the fact that Leeds have moved from a base formation of a 4–1–4–1 — where Klich primarily played as one of the ‘free eights’ — to Marsch’s preferred 4–2–2–2. In the 4–2–2–2, the 31-year-old is deployed as one of the two midfielders in front of the back four, or to give it the name used in modern coaching parlance, he plays in the ‘double pivot’.
Marsch utililising Klich in this position has brought different attributes to the forefront of his game and hasn’t required him to do as much running as was required in his previous role. It has made him look like one of the ‘winners’ in the formation change and may see him continue at the club for longer than it seemed he might. If it doesn’t, his time in this role will perhaps shed some light on the kind of player Marsch might require Victor Orta to bring in during the summer transfer window.
Here’s how Klich’s game has changed since he began playing in the double pivot:
Playing behind the ball instead of ahead of the ball
The starkest change in the Pole’s performances has been his role as Leeds build attacks.
Under Bielsa, a key part of Klich’s role was to move laterally across the pitch, providing passing options and making runs in wide areas as Leeds would look to overload their opponents high up on the flanks.
This meant he would be positioned high for a midfielder and as such is in the 98th percentile for midfielders in the top five European leagues when it comes to receiving progressive passes. His average is 6.25 per 90. Notably, that average has dropped to 2.8 since Klich began playing in the deeper role under Marsch. I would be remiss not to mention that the sample size is very small here, but as we aren’t making big conclusions about player quality, it’s instructive to see the difference in his role.
Here are two pass maps to illustrate how this looks on the field.
Firstly, the below is from Leeds 0–1 Newcastle in January. Klich was playing in his most common role under Bielsa in this match:
Note — the direction of play is left to right. We can see here that Klich played the majority of his passes in the opponent’s half in this game. Also, he barely made any passes in central areas. Instead, he received and passed the ball on the flanks.
Now let’s compare that to his pass map from the first Marsch game. This was a 1–0 loss to Leicester City, where Klich played on the right side of the double pivot:
The images should speak for themselves here, but for the avoidance of doubt — Klich made the majority of his passes from within his own half, primarily from a central position. Instead of being a target for progressive passes, in this new role, it’s his job to play the progressive passes.
To hammer the point home, here’s how it looks on the video:
See in the clips above how Klich would receive the ball, pass to the winger and then make a run forwards to make himself an option to receive again or to create space.
Meanwhile, here’s some examples of what he did in the Leicester game:
Instead of receiving the ball high up, he was receiving the ball deep and using his passing ability to break opposition lines.
In attacking phases, Bielsa used Klich as a runner. It was his job to run from central areas into wide areas, taking players away from central spaces or putting him in positions from which he could put the ball into the box. These runs would almost always be ahead of the ball, as below:
In the new system, Klich stays behind the ball in attacking phases and his runs to receive the ball are running onto it, rather than running ahead of it, like so:
In fact, in this next example, observe the fact that even though Leeds are in an advanced position, Klich is reluctant to burst into the box in the way that he would have done during Bielsa’s time in charge.
Instead, his main role in attacking phases is now to hold his position at the base of midfield and let the four players ahead of him make the attacking runs. Should the ball come to him, he plays direct passes into the centre of the opponent’s defensive third.
Notably, Klich didn’t start in the 3–0 loss to Aston Villa as Marsch went with Robin Koch and Adam Forshaw as his starting options in the double pivot. A lot of things went wrong in that game, and it would be a leap to blame the performance on this, but Leeds seemed to badly miss Klich’s positive passing in that game.
Should Klich move on this summer, Leeds will absolutely need a central midfielder who is confident in playing through the opposition lines as the Pole has done in recent games.
Reduced physical demands come at the price of reduced attacking output
This change in Klich’s role has put much less demand on his body. As mentioned earlier, Klich started every single game in the first two Bielsa seasons, bar one. That, plus Bielsa’s physically demanding style, and the fact Klich was primarily a runner for the Argentine, meant that Bielsa-ball took a real toll on his body.
Sprints data is not easily obtainable so I can’t prove this with the numbers, but as I’ve shown above, Klich is holding his position far more now, rather than charging all over the pitch. This has two benefits: firstly, he is able to play for longer in games, as he was often subsititued under Bielsa after running himself into the ground. Secondly, he may be able to remain an option in the position for next season, should Leeds want to keep him and he want to stay. Whilst Marsch’s system still requires a lot of running and for players to be very fit, this particular role certainly allows for a greater longevity.
The cost Leeds have paid in this trade off is that they have lost him as an attacking outlet in his own right. Klich ranks seventh in the squad for shots per 90 this season, averaging 1.91 and — in the Championship at least — he had been a reliable source of goals from midfield. However, he hasn’t had a single shot in all four of the games Marsch has been manager for. This is a trade-off the American seems happy with, as his 4–2–2–2 specifically attacks with four players whilst the full backs provide support. The change is notable though, and if Klich remains for another season at Elland Road, don’t expect him to score many goals in this role.
‘Against the ball’
Finally, to use Marsch’s phrase: Klich is a strong player ‘against the ball’. He was under Bielsa and he is now, but again, what he is doing is different.
Under Bielsa, Leeds famously played a man-marking system all over the pitch and Klich would be all over his designated opponent. When Leeds were pressing high, he was at his best, often winning the ball in midfield or at least pushing his opponents back. Here are some examples of how he would quickly close down his man as they were receiving the ball:
As you can see, this primarily involved Klich pressing in the opposition half. Many will remember how this could go wrong at times, leaving Klich chasing behind opposition midfield runners if they were to break through.
Under Marsch, he’s defending more within his own half. This should be obvious — given that he’s now ostensibly a ‘defensive midfielder’ — but his job now involves protecting Leeds’ back four from becoming exposed.
What Klich did well in the man-marking system serves him well here. He gets quickly out to the ball carrier in order to strangle them of space to do anything dangerous.
Marsch’s preferred way of pressing involves the team moving as a unit to press the ball. As of yet, Leeds haven’t really got this functioning properly since he took over. However, this is something that should improve as the season nears its end, and should be working properly after a full pre-season working on it as the team’s main tactic. Klich should fit into that, with the four players ahead of him pressing high, whilst he and his midfield partner squeeze up behind and the team attempt to funnel the ball into the centre of the pitch, where the 4–2–2–2 formation can collapse inwards to win the ball.
The other aspect of Marsch’s ‘against the ball’ play is the idea of counter-pressing. This is actually attacking play, rather than defensive play, though. The principle of it is that Leeds will be direct with the ball, not worrying about whether they retain possession or not. The aim is simply to put the ball into a dangerous area. From there, they immediately ‘counter-press’ in order to win the ball quickly back and attack the opponent. Again, Klich’s attributes suit this. Here is an example of a chance created after a counter-press he was involved in:
Notably, this was an individual action by the 31-year-old, rather than the team counter-pressing as a unit. However, Klich followed the principles Marsch wants in his pressing. As he sprinted to the man, he didn’t stop a yard away to force the man back, but he ran ‘all the way in,’ to win it directly and put Norwich on the back foot.
The best profile to play in the double pivot?
We have yet to see Kalvin Phillips play under Marsch, but there is an argument to be made that Klich is the best fit for the profile of the player Marsch requires in the double pivot.
Much is made of Phillips as a passer, but the majority of his work under Bielsa was done as a defensive destroyer. This is less necessary now that Leeds are playing with two deeper midfielders. Meanwhile, his passing primarily helped Leeds spread the ball wide quickly. The shape is now narrow, meaning that switching the play will be less effective.
The England international may be asked to use that passing ability to try to get runners in behind opponents in central areas, or just to play long balls which the team can counter-press. However, Phillips doesn’t have the same kind of incisiveness to his ground passing which we have seen from Klich in the examples I showed from the Leicester game.
Meanwhile, Adam Forshaw has been excellent for Leeds since returning from his injury troubles, but he is perhaps a little too concerned with holding possession, where Marsch requires the ball to be moved forward quicker.
Whether Klich remains with the club or not, one would expect that Leeds will sign a central midfielder regardless. It would be surprising if that midfielder was not more of an all-rounder in the way that Klich is. It seems that, in at least one of the two midfield roles, Marsch requires a good, direct passer who is capable of covering a good amount of ground and is tactically disciplined to fit into his pressing structure.
Leeds’ number 43 may not be the man for the job in the long term, but early impressions under the new manager make it seem like the Whites could still get some mileage out of him yet.