The Square Ball Week: Two Spirits

In Free, Leeds United Match Reports 2017/18, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

On the 30th April, 2016, SD Huesca took to their home field, Estadio El Alcoraz, for a bottom of Segunda match against Llagostera-Costa Brava. Wearing no.14 for Huesca, on the back of his blue and claret striped shirt, was Samuel Saiz.

The day was bright and the opponent was bad; Llagostera were in the relegation places, while Huesca had been yoyoing the table above them, and the difference in quality that ought to ensure the Aragonese club’s survival was clear within a minute. A deep cross by Alexander Gonzalez from the corner flag was hit on the volley by Darwin Machis, who sent the ball bouncing over the keeper into the bottom corner of the net.

Llagostera tried to pressure Huesca after that, leaving Samu Saiz standing, watching, waiting for his number ten role to become relevant to the game. The ball finally came near him in the centre circle and he leapt way above his height — but below, say, Jay-Roy Grot’s — to head it in a different direction, to a teammate. The return pass missed Saiz, and he went off in pursuit of the ball, chasing pass to pass, player to player, until a teammate took over and Saiz returned to his position.

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Soon after, a straight pass found Saiz on the halfway line, his back to goal. His ankles were clipped and he dropped to all fours; no foul was given, and somehow the ball rolled to a Huescan, while Saiz took another kick up the backside, that he ignored in favour of joining the attack. That fizzled out, but the chance to keep it going was there through Saiz, taking up positions with angles for two teammates, one to give him the ball, one to take it from him, until Llagostera cleared.

By the dugouts, meanwhile, Alberto Escassi of Llagostera was covering his eyes with one hand and grimacing, his arm around the front of the team physio, who was pushing back a dislocated finger on his other hand, out of the player’s pained sight.

On the pitch, Saiz received a pass near the edge of the box, but was unaware of a defender behind him, who easily shoved him off the ball and left him stumbling. He did better with his next touch. Llagostera’s keeper cleared downfield but Carlos Moreno won a commanding header, sending the ball towards the centre circle. It came at an awkward height and angle for Saiz, so he solved the problem by spinning and backheeling it, donkey style, to Fran Mérida by his side.

Then Saiz’s control let him down on the right wing, where Huesca were concentrating most of their attacks through Gonzalez, when his attempt to bounce the ball from heel to heel let a Llagostera defender clip it away for a throw-in. From the throw-in he played a one-two with Gonzalez, Saiz backpeddling but chipping a good delicate pass, that the goalkeeper smothered at Gonzalez’s feet.

Things weren’t coming off for Samu. He had the ball in the centre circle again, but although he beat one player, he fouled the next. Not much was happening in the middle so he started to tend towards Gonzalez on the right wing, but when he gave the winger the ball, he rarely got it back. His crosses were charged down; he won a free kick on the edge of the penalty area, volleying against an arm, but shot high over the bar. Twice he was sent away from corner taking duties by Fran Mérida, the second time with good reason: the ball was headed straight into the goal by Íñigo López. The first player to celebrate with López was Saiz, pointing at him with two straight arms meaning: you’re the man.

Now it was better. Straight from the kick off the ball flew out of defence at Saiz, and he headed it above and behind him to Mikel Arruabarrena. He volleyed the ball forward to Saiz again, who was running down the wing, and jumped and twisted to control it on his chest; as he brought it down he span away from a tackle, then tapped the ball into space away from another and ran after it, two more touches taking him into the penalty area to the byline, from where he cut the ball back and Machis shot straight at the keeper. It was worth a high five, and the corner was worth a goal — Mérida again sending Saiz away, again finding López, who again headed it in, for 3-0 after 23 minutes.

Confidence was high, and Saiz controlled a cross-pitch pass dead on his toe, but his through ball died on the same toe as his flick into the penalty area went straight to the keeper; then on a counter attack, a cross was played too many yards ahead of Saiz for him to turn it into a goal. After half an hour the game was won, but Saiz wasn’t having much fun. Llagostera are the sort of poor opponent that make good teams play below themselves, and Huesca were going around them, wide, leaving Saiz out of the game in the middle.

When after five minutes he does get the ball and a chance to counter attack, tearing through the middle and between defenders, Saiz’s race is run: he pulls up, letting the ball run wherever, his hand going in the air as he hops, hops, hops to the ground, landing flat on his back and in visible pain. He writhes, covering his eyes, then snaps sitting upright, staring at his leg as if it will tell him what the problem is. It’s saying nothing, so he falls flat again.

The physio helps him limp to the bench, then down the tunnel, and a minute later he’s replaced. And 500 days later, a year and four months, I close the VLC player window and label the match video file as ‘watched’, the oldest of twenty-two Huesca matches that I’ve downloaded as I try to get my head around this new thing in my life: what Ezgjan Alioski calls The Saiz.

I feel like I’ve been writing about nothing but The Saiz this season, but at the same time, not enough. Writing should be done through the ears and not the eyes, but I’m even more aware of that now that I also read these articles out for a podcast (please consider signing up here folks! It’s my only income😭). As I read the report I’d written about the Birmingham game, I heard it over and over again: Saiz, Saiz, Samu Saiz, Samuel Saiz, Saiz did this, Saiz did that, Saiz, Saiz, all we hear is radio Saiz, and if I bloody love Samu Saiz so much, why don’t I just bloody marry him? Well, because the very glamorous TV star Elena Milla might have something to say about that, and if she’s his type, I’m definitely not. But in my mind, yes, yes we are married, and it’s great! I’m so happy.

I’m happily married but I don’t even feel like I know my new husband. Falling in love causes regret because of all the years beforehand when you weren’t in love, when you didn’t even know the other person existed. The antidote to that sort of regret is making peace with timing, because people aren’t born the way we meet them when we fall for them: there are years of growth — personal if not physical, little Samu — and the years when you weren’t what you’ve become. When you were, perhaps, nowhere near as loveable.

Hence the Huesca archive. I want to know about his past so I can know if now is the only time, and if so, what has happened to Samu Saiz to make him, aged 26, so perfect for Leeds United 2017/18. Because that’s my suspicion. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and this is definitely Saiz’s moment, just as the days of Hockaday, Milanic and Redders were definitely not Adryan’s. But where did The Saiz come from, and how did he get like this?

When Leeds United signed Eric Cantona, he was a relative unknown outside France, but a national star inside it. We hadn’t heard of Tony Yeboah, but he’d been the Bundesliga’s hottest property for four years. Saiz’s career up to now, though, wears the letter B for ‘badge of shame’: Real Madrid B, Sevilla B, Getafe B, Almeria B, Atletico Madrid B. He played in La Liga once: for twelve minutes.

Near the start of the 2014/15 season, Oscar Mena, coach of Atletico Madrid B, “exploded”, according to El Gol De Madridz. Against Sestao River his forward Sekou Keita had been sent off for kicking an opponent in the face, Mena himself had been sent to the stands by the referee, and, worst of all, Samuel Saiz had been an hour late to the game, so he’d left him out.

“How can a player be late for a game call?” Mena said, ranting to a reporter. “He can not! Honestly, I prefer to lose the game, as long as discipline is fulfilled. If we have a schedule and a discipline we must comply. And the one that does not comply, that’s his problem.

“If you are sent from the newspaper to cover a game at 12.00 and you arrive at 12.30 and you missed two goals, does not it affect you? The whole team was there on time watching the C team. He is an important player for us, he is one of the best players we have. But if I allow that, tomorrow this happens with another and the next day with another. Here things are going to be done as I say.

“He lives in the centre of Madrid and he said it was the Bicycle Festival. I have no idea if it was. But if I see that I can not get out, I take the Metro and I take a taxi to arrive on time. And instead of leaving at 10.15 to get there, I leave at 9.00. I left at 8.00, and with traffic jams and everything I arrive at 10.00. How can I not arrive on time? Since I’m not late, I can not allow it. And less so in a group of boys who have to learn. This is like a house. If you do not do well, your father punishes you.”

Mena’s punishments did not get the the behaviour he was demanding. At the end of April he was sacked, his team on a run of seven defeats and a draw that was plunging them towards relegation in a season perpetually marred by indiscipline, lateness, and a training ground incident in April that left Saiz out of the team with a “disciplinary file” opened against the “recidivist player” by Atletico.

“What a shame that a good footballer misses like this,” a fan wrote in the comments section on El Gol de Madridz. “This guy is on repeat. He can change, but he has to do it right now. He should be the star of the team, but a boy who gone through Real Madrid, Getafe and now Atleti B must have something (not good) that prevents him from becoming a real football player.”

That something (not good) was “numerous night outings”, according to Motiva Goal’s article on Atletico’s “Bullet Man” of the B team. “The Almeria B team (signed Saiz) due to his great season for Getafe B. They knew about his behaviour problems and his private life, but they wanted him to become their star player. The player already had these same problems in the B teams of Real Madrid and Sevilla.” The same problems got him kicked from Almeria to Atleti, and at the end of 2014/15 from Atleti to Huesca.

Two months after joining Huesca, Juan Antonio Anquela became their coach, “a breath of fresh air for a footballer with tremendous qualities who lacked a push to exploit his virtues,” according to José Miguel Capel, who lamented Saiz’s departure from Huesca this summer as fervently as followers of his previous clubs had been glad to see the back of him.

“The farewell of a loved one produces a sense of emptiness that’s impossible to describe,” he wrote. “The departure of a footballer so special that he emanates a resplendent pleasure for the fans’ senses constitutes a separation that gives off a deep sense of despair.

“Anquela gave Samu his stripes, shook the top hat and Saiz showed his magic … Leeds wins a genius, and adds a magician to their ranks who enhances their options for glory.”

Locked in those twenty-two Huesca videos, then, all but one from the season just ended, is the metamorphosis of a tipsy night-crawling caterpillar into the bright, golden butterfly now gracing Elland Road, the redemption story of a player we can begin to understand as more John Sheridan than Adryan. A story that makes him even more perfect for Leeds United.

And have no doubt, he is perfect. Perfect now. Rick Broadbent quoted Gordon Strachan in The Times this week: “It’s like David Bowie. Every so often you have to reinvent yourself.” Leeds United did that when Strachan was here, when Howard Wilkinson stripped the memories from the walls and made the club stop treating its past as a ghost, when Don Revie sadly apart it was very much alive, and instead as a rival; Revie himself did it with a very Bowie like costume change. But underneath Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke was always David Bowie, reinventing himself because of everything before, hiding it but carrying it with him, and neither Leeds United nor Samuel Saiz can hide who they used to be behind who they are now.

And so we connect, and magic starts happening. There was more to it, but last season, I think the Pontus Jansson factor put big numbers on our attendances. I know anecdotally of people who took their kids along just because they were begging to see this crazy Swede celebrating tackles. Pontus plugged into the zeitgeist; everything was nicer under Garry Monk than it had been for a while, but it wasn’t dirty-nice until Jansson came along. Leeds United, rediscovering itself after fifteen years, had to smear that passionate Pontus grit across its face to still feel like itself.

This season it’s Samu Saiz everyone wants to see. Alioski might be more efficient, Lasogga more storming, Hernandez more scheming — a player who looks revitalised by having such stimulating new players around him. But it’s Saiz who is fulfilling all our Leedsy desires for provocative talent, intensity of performance, arrogant self-belief and, given how both he and we are emerging together from a wilderness of underachievement, a cavalier joy in every touch of the football.

And, yes, a desperate fear that it could all go wrong. Saiz has never played in a top tier. A generation of young adults follow Leeds United who have never seen us play in one either. For those of us who have, it’s a distant memory. But this season Leeds United are waking up in the best way, not to memories of what was, but hopes about what might be about to be. But we’re betting it all on football: and there’s no easier way to have your hopes snatched away. High stakes, even if only emotionally, but that’s the thrill.

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People talk about being desperate for success like it’s a bad thing, but desperation is what Leeds United and Samu Saiz share. Two desperate people, matching spirit and soul, fall in love: and that story has a happy ending, doesn’t it? ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)