Wigan Athletic v Leeds United: Bielsa’s measured responses still stress that Saiz matters to Whites

Samuel Saiz pictured playing for Leeds United as a substitute against Nottingham Forest last weekend (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).
Samuel Saiz pictured playing for Leeds United as a substitute against Nottingham Forest last weekend (Picture: Bruce Rollinson).
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JUST AS a strong Yorkshire equates to a strong England in cricketing circles, Samuel Saiz’s fortunes have become inter-twined with those of Leeds United since his arrival in the Championship.

The Spaniard took little time to make his mark on Elland Road following his £3m switch from Huesca during the summer of 2017.

Having been left on the bench for the opening game of last season as Leeds triumphed 3-2 at Bolton Wanderers, Saiz announced himself in the very next game with a hat-trick against Port Vale in the Carabao Cup.

The former Real Madrid junior had to be content with a place on the bench again the following weekend, but soon Thomas Christiansen was ready to unleash his new playmaker on the Championship.

Saiz was a revelation, his vision and trickery soon marking him out as a hero to a group of supporters lapping up a start to the campaign that left Leeds in pole position by mid-September.

This bright start, however, could not be maintained by United and there was little doubt that a dip in Saiz’s own form was a factor.

Then came the spitting incident at Newport County in January that brought a deserved six-game ban.

By the time of his return midway through the following month, Christiansen had been replaced by Paul Heckingbottom and United’s season was in a tailspin. Saiz cut a forlorn figure, almost an embodiment of how all that early promise in 2017-18 had given way to an air of demoralisation that lasted until the arrival of Marcelo Bielsa during the summer.

The Argentinian, suitably impressed, put Saiz at the centre of his plans. His faith was repaid by a string of impressive displays as Leeds once again set the pace at the top of the Championship.

More recently, however, Saiz has lost his way once again and last weekend brought a demotion to the bench for the visit of Nottingham Forest.

It is no coincidence that United’s results have also dipped in line with their attacking talisman’s performances.

Bielsa’s task is to elicit a return to the form that lit up the second tier during those early weeks of the season.

“Samu Saiz is a great player,” said the Argentinian. “He is the player who can create the lack of balance (in the opposition) that our team needs. He is the only player in the group who can create that.

“Taking into account what he has done so far this season and what he did last year, he is the player who can create the best lack of balance in our offence.

“The most important pass that ended with the goal that was scored started with Saiz. Samu’s last pass is the most aggressive one we have. Of course, after praising him like that you will ask me why he doesn’t play.

“He is not playing because he is going through ups and downs. Things like this happen. Sometimes we have to explain why Saiz is not a starter and others when (Adam) Forshaw is not a starter.”

Whether Saiz starts or is again on the bench tomorrow remains to be seen. But the stakes are high for United ahead of a trip to Wigan Athletic that has been put back a day to be broadcast live by Sky Sports.

Lose and the pressure will be cranked up a notch going into next weekend’s visit to free-scoring West Bromwich Albion in what will be the club’s final assignment before the season’s third international break.

Triumph at the DW Stadium, however, and depending on how Sheffield United get on at Nottingham Forest today, Leeds could head to The Hawthorns buoyed by being back at the summit.

Securing what would be only a fourth win in 11 outings will not be easy. Wigan have already claimed three Yorkshire scalps on home soil this season.

Paul Cook’s men like to take the game to the visitors with Nick Powell and wing-back Reece James having proved a big threat in those victories over Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham United and Hull City.

Bielsa added: “For me the next opponent that I am playing against is always a tough one and I never underestimate them.

“I always think that the opponents are always strong enough to provide an important challenge to our skills. We always hope to win.

“We just drew at home (against Forest) and it makes it important to win an away game.”

Tomorrow will be just the 12th time these two clubs have met. The first came in March, 1987 with a place in the last four of the FA Cup at stake.

Leeds triumphed 2-0 that Sunday afternoon at the old Springfield Park and a repeat would do nicely for the Yorkshire club.

Barry Douglas returns after almost a month out with a hamstring injury, but Bielsa has a big decision to make at right-back with Luke Ayling out for two months and Gaetano Berardi facing a similarly lengthy lay-off. “It is not a simple injury,” Bielsa said yesterday.

As for what Douglas’s return will bring to United, the 63-year-old added: “I don’t make a comparison between players, but I can tell you what his skills are.

“He (Douglas) has a very good left foot, especially for the set-pieces and crosses. His inside pass is also very good and his associated play is also good. He combines well with his team-mates.

“He is an experienced player and usually he always has a level of performance which the minimum is always good.”

Stuart Dallas seems the most likely to start at right-back for what is expected to be Wigan’s final game before being taken over by the International Entertainment Corporation.

The £22m deal with the Hong Kong-based company will bring to an end the 23-year reign of the Whelan family, former chairman Dave having handed the reins of the club on to grandson David Sharpe in 2015.