Optimism, thy name is Samu. What would Leeds United be if Saiz was plural?
Saiz was on it from the start against Nottingham Forest, pressing the goalkeeper, fighting his way through his repertoire of skills against aggressive midfielders, seeking space and dipping a through ball towards Kalvin Phillips. He was all energy and bustle, a one-man revocation of the team’s performance in Birmingham.
A high clearance was nonchalantly backheeled to Luke Ayling, who no sooner had the ball than Saiz demanded it back. He got it, beat his marker, and curved his cross towards Kemar Roofe’s head. Roofe couldn’t reach it, but Leeds were reaching a higher level, and there were still more than 85 minutes to go.
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Saiz’s teammates began as if spurred to match his action, Pablo Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski scampering in Saiz’s wake, Eunan O’Kane forcing the ball forward from midfield. They can’t all have the skill of Saiz, but they can have the same application and energy, which brings with it the capacity to thrill.
Leeds had the first and best chance, or three in one. A corner by Hernandez was headed firmly at Jordan Smith, and the keeper dropped to save; he stayed down to block Roofe, as he tried to jab the ball in from a yard; as the ball span high, Roofe did the right thing by springing into the air to volley it, but put it over the bar.
But a superb last ditch tackle by Liam Cooper to stop a goal by Ben Brereton had reminded Leeds that they were in a game, not an exhibition, and gave Forest a few ideas of their own. Leeds United’s idea remained giving the ball to Saiz, but they were giving it deeper and deeper, bringing him into kicking range of Liam Bridcutt.
Alioski set up another half chance for Roofe that he hit wide, while Hernandez planned danger from the left, but missing the early chances affected confidence, and an injury to Ayling disrupted momentum. Gaetano Berardi went home to right-back, and Vurnon Anita took his turn at filling in at left-back, and some of United’s fizz evaporated. From the left Saiz sprayed a cross field pass to put Alioski free in the penalty area, but Alioski completely missed the bounce, and the crucial gap between Saiz and his teammates began to open up.
All the while, the space between Nottingham Forest’s midfield and defence was closing, so that even Saiz’s algebraic right foot couldn’t find the formula for connecting with Roofe’s runs. Without a manager and without an away win in five matches, Forest daren’t cross the halfway line, and Leeds couldn’t hack through the thick foliage.
Forest’s central defenders were dealing with anything aimed at Roofe, so Pierre-Michel Lasogga as a half-time replacement for Alioski seemed a decent idea. Lasogga, unfortunately, continues to be better in theory than in action. If he was a bit faster, if he was a bit fitter, if he was as strong as he looks, if his teammates thought he was going to reach through balls he called for, he’d be a great striker. He did create space for the other forwards, and had his usual screaming attempt, this time trying to emulate prime Ruud Gullit from the corner of the penalty area and volleying into the Kop. But with all those conditions attached to getting anything good from Lasogga, we might as well just try a different player.
Saiz and Roofe remained the most dangerous. Ten minutes in the second half, Saiz span around Bridcutt in the middle of United’s half, and held Bridcutt off as he ran down the left towards Forest’s area. There, as the defenders tracked Lasogga, Saiz passed across them to Roofe. With the whole goal to aim at and the goalkeeper scrambling, it’s possible to be mad at Roofe for hitting the bar, but had his shot been six inches lower it would have been a great finish, so complaining feels harsh.
The opportunity to complain came a couple of minutes later, when Roofe dashed through the middle and shot, with Saiz and Lasogga in good places to his right. Roofe’s shot went high over the bar, Saiz slid to his knees pleading with Roofe and/or whichever cruel god sent him here, and Lasogga simply bellowed at him. Phillips had tried a couple of long range potshots already, and Leeds were looking impatient despite having thirty minutes left.
Next time Saiz gave Phillips the ball on the edge of the box, Phillips tried to lob the ball back to him in the six yard box, and Saiz tried to climb Forest’s goalkeeper as the ball bounced out; then Phillips tried a through ball to Lasogga, but Michael Mancienne easily outran him. Then Forest had their best spell, forcing Felix Wiedwald to deal with corners and shots, and using up time, so that by the time Leeds had asserted themselves again, their impatience at not scoring was turning into desperation, Saiz’s inspiration turning into frustration. He and Hernandez reprised their nearly-winner from Birmingham, Saiz skipping past four as he dribbled through the middle, Hernandez controlling his pass, the goalkeeper saving the shot with his toes.
Desperation and frustration were the perfect ingredients for the introduction of Hadi Sacko, replacing Roofe with ten minutes left. If Saiz is optimism, Sacko is optimism’s drain; he’s only ever brought on as a desperate measure. Even so, one calmly dipped cross to the back post made a good chance for Lasogga, but he wanted more balance and power to beat the goalkeeper with a header and was easily stopped. He got to his feet with white touchline paint on his face, looking like a sad clown.
There was no disguising that Saiz was the most forlorn performer by the end. He was booked for dissent in injury time, after another afternoon of being kicked up, down and across the opponent’s half, fighting for possession only to see his teammates let him down. When he barked at the linesman, the faces of his strikers could have been flashing through his mind, as he ranted at them all.
He was forlorn, but he still managed to create another chance in the dwindling time remaining, crossing to the sort of space Lasogga could have exploited, had he been there. Saiz had created enough chances to win six games and watched the players around him turn that into nil.
The positives were that Leeds were secure at the back and that the efforts to score continued into the 96th minute. The problem was that the efforts were all dictated by one player. Although I’d buy a ticket to any solo performance by Samu Saiz, at Leeds United games, there are ten others there who can’t be ignored. Whether they can be improved is the question, or whether, with the transfer window open, the only answer is replacements. ◉
(feature image by Jim Ogden)
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