In this article, Tom Alderson asks what’s happened to Leeds’ midfield dynamo, Mateusz Klich…
In the first few months of Leeds’ return to the Premier League, Mateusz Klich looked more than comfortable competing at the higher level with the ‘big boys’ and was arguably an early contender for Leeds’ player of the season.
He hit the ground running with goals against Liverpool and Fulham in the first two games and only got better from there, with the game against Arsenal potentially being his best performance for Leeds. After the Arsenal game, Bielsa said: “Klich for me is a player that can play in all the best teams in the world”.
Since the start of December Klich hasn’t played as well though and found himself on the bench away at Newcastle for reasons other than being hungover for the first time since Bielsa took charge.
So what’s happened?
My initial thought was Rodrigo playing a run of games with Klich in midfield has had a negative effect on Klich’s performances. As a result of this hunch, the stats used in this piece are split from games one to eleven (Liverpool to Chelsea), where Klich had a mix of midfield partners, and games twelve to twenty-one (West Ham to Everton), where Rodrigo played consistently in midfield.
Note that the Leicester home game is removed from the stats as Klich played in holding midfield in that game. Using that game as part of a comparison would not be accurate.
Build Up and Midfield Progression
One of the features of Klich’s play is him coming deeper to help when Leeds’ are passing out from the back or progressing through the midfield.
A common pattern of play is Klich dropping deep and receiving the ball from a centre back or full back and then passing first time to another free defender. An example of this can be seen below from the home game against Everton:
Pascal Struijk (highlighted in yellow) sees Klich (highlighted in blue) running deep into the green area and plays the pass:
Klich is followed closely by Abdoulaye Doucouré (highlighted in red) but plays the ball first time to Liam Cooper (highlighted in orange):
This combination helps to give a defender more time on the ball and can also create space in midfield for another player as Klich coming deep usually draws another player to follow him. If not, Klich is left with time to turn and then progress the ball forward himself.
A similar pattern of play is seen when in the midfield third or when teams press Leeds high. However, the positions of the players involved is more fluid.
When watching recent games it has felt like Klich has been dropping deep less during matches and when he has it has seemed less effective.
One potential reason for this may be that teams have picked up on this and are ensuring a player follows Klich closely (as Doucouré did above) when he does this in order to reduce its effectiveness.
With less time on the ball, Klich has seemed more inclined to pass the ball back to the centre backs rather than another free man which slows down progression. The proximity of the opposition player also means Klich takes the ball with his back to goal more rather than on the half turn. This allows him to protect the ball but hinders his passing options.
In a clip from the Wolves game below, we can see how effective Klich can be when given more time in these areas.
Luke Ayling (highlighted in yellow) sees Klich (highlighted in blue) moving deeper to pick up the ball and therefore passes the ball into the green area:
With more time and space on the ball — because Joao Moutinho (highlighted in red) is not marking as closely — Klich is able to turn and pass the ball off to Stuart Dallas (highlighted in light orange). Dallas has space to run into and the ball is progressed:
When Dallas played in midfield away at Leicester, it was noticeable how Leeds’ were better in build-up compared to recent weeks when Dallas took up the role of dropping deep. It may be that Dallas was tasked with this role because he wasn’t as closely marked as Klich is.
Another potential reason for Klich poorer performances recently may be due to Rodrigo. With Rodrigo in the team, I believe Klich has less freedom to roam around the pitch, either because he’s been asked to stay in position more or because he doesn’t feel like he can because Rodrigo is weaker defensively.
In build-up, this reduces Klich ability to free himself of his marker but also means the passes he receives are more vertical than horizontal, making it harder for him to take the ball on the half-turn.
Moving on now to the attacking side of Klich’s game, his Shot- and Goal-Creating Actions per 90 can be seen below for Games 1 to 11 — when Klich didn’t have a consistent partner in midfield — and Games 12 to 21, when Rodrigo began to play more consistently.
FBref defines Shot- and Goal-Creating Actions as the two offensive actions directly leading to a shot or goal, such as passes, dribbles and drawing fouls. A single player can receive credit for multiple actions and the shot-taker can also receive credit.
Klich’s attacking numbers have seen a drop off since the Chelsea game with his Shot-Creating Actions per 90 reducing from 5.24 to 3.40 and his Goal-Creating Actions dropping from 0.72 to 0.44. Putting it simply, Klich has been less involved with shots and goals recently.
This is an area where Rodrigo is having an effect on Klich. Rodrigo and Klich are similar in their preference to receive the ball in space then look for a pass which leads to them taking up the same areas on the pitch.
The combination of this — and the reduced creative burden on Klich with Rodrigo playing — means he has been seeing less of the ball in the areas where he would want it. The stats show this up: his touches in the Attacking Third have dropped slightly from 28.66 to 25.61 per 90.
Rodrigo has another adverse effect on Klich’s attacking play because, as previously mentioned, he reduces Klich’s freedom to roam around the pitch. Klich likes to operate in the half space and wings more than in the centre of the pitch, as can be seen in the heatmap from SmarterScout below (Klich dropping deeper can be seen clearly in this image as well):
In these areas, Klich likes to either help with the build-up or overlap and put a cross into the penalty box. It was clear from watching the Arsenal game back how Dallas playing in midfield allowed Klich to move into the areas freely.
Klich’s ability to do this is also impacted by opposition teams becoming more aware of how to defend against Leeds. When teams press aggressively in the wider areas, they stifle Leeds’ ability to build up in these areas and, therefore, will hinder Klich’s attacking play which can be seen watching games and from looking at the stats.
Finally, we move on to the defensive side of Klich’s game. Klich’s Tackling and Pressuring stats before and after Rodrigo started playing regularly can be seen below:
Klich’s Tackling and Pressuring numbers per 90 minutes have dropped when playing with Rodrigo more regularly. His Pressures per 90 have gone from 23.01 to 19.39 and his Tackling numbers have moved even more substantially from 2.57 Tackles to 0.89 Tackles per 90.
When Klich does Press or Tackle though his effectiveness hasn’t changed much as his Tackle Win percentage has only dropped from 84% to 83%, and his Successful Pressures from 31% to 29%.
I would have expected the opposite effect to happen to Klich’s defensive numbers playing with Rodrigo as he is the more defensive of the two 8s. This again may be down to Klich not being as positionally free with Rodrigo playing.
Looking at the location of Klich’s Pressures in the table above, we can see that there has been a large drop off in the Midfield 3rd when Rodrigo has played more regularly from 12.84 to 9.62 Pressures.
This drop accounts for basically all of the drop in Klich’s Total Pressures as the numbers in the Defensive and Attacking 3rd have stayed fairly consistent. This suggests Klich is not able to press the opposition in the Midfield 3rd as much due to covering for Rodrigo and worrying the opposition might run through the midfield.
The recent tactical change whilst pressing may also result in an improvement in Klich’s defensive numbers. During the Leicester away game after Leicester switched to a back three, Jack Harrison was used to press the centre backs rather than Klich. This role would normally be carried out by Rodrigo which sometimes led to Klich being exposed.
With more support in the midfield, Klich should be able to press more freely which will hopefully lead to his defensive numbers returning to where they were in the first 11 games.
One factor that I have not considered in this piece is fatigue as it’s almost impossible to analyse.
I think if fatigue would show up anywhere it would be in Klich’s defensive numbers. Personally, I would be surprised if Klich wasn’t feeling the effects of all those consecutive starts and the shortened off-season, but with Rodrigo out for the next few games, he is unlikely to get a rest anytime soon.
Rodrigo being out could help Klich to get his confidence back though as a run of games playing with Dallas should help him in the three phases of the game mentioned above.
It will be interesting to see over the next few weeks whether opposition tactics or Rodrigo are having more of a negative effect on Klich’s play. All the factors that have contributed to Klich’s run of poor performances though mean that it may not be a simple fix to get him playing well again.