Against the odds, Leeds United are staying in the Premier League. A season of poor performances and injury misery finally saw a break in the clouds in West London on Sunday afternoon as they beat Brentford to secure their top flight status. Suddenly, the question becomes how they move back up the table and build a successful future.
Second Season Syndrome
After their exuberant return to the Premier League last season, things looked off-color from the start this term. A disappointing preseason including two hefty defeats in a day to Ajax hinted at a difficult second season. A 5-1 opening day loss at Old Trafford confirmed Marcelo Bielsa’s team had apparent issues. By September, injuries kicked in and didn’t relent from there on.
At the height of the injury crisis in December, Leeds had just eight players with more than a few first team appearances to call in a 4-1 loss to Arsenal. Leeds recovered to a degree in the New Year, but they stunned their fans when they failed to add new faces in the transfer window, despite most of the teams around them reinforcing.
A run of four successive defeats in February, including a 6-0 hiding at Anfield and a 4-0 home loss to Tottenham, saw Leeds do the unthinkable and sack Bielsa. In came former RB Leipzig Coach Jesse Marsch with the job of securing Leeds’ premier league status. Opening defeats to Leicester and Aston Villa had the alarm bells ringing, but a five-match unbeaten run including injury time wins over Norwich and Wolves seemed to steer Leeds clear of danger.
Burnley and Everton then pulled Leeds back into trouble with winning runs just as Leeds faced a difficult run of games. Leeds looked dead and buried when trailing in the penultimate game of the season against Brighton. Another injury time goal rescued a point at Elland Road, but ensuing results elsewhere meant Leeds entered the final game of the season in the bottom three.
Leeds were boosted when rivals Burnley fell behind in their game, pushing Leeds just above the relegation dotted line. However, a penalty from Raphinha pushed Leeds closer to safety and although they conceded an equalizer to jangle the nerves, Jack Harrison’s injury time thunderbolt secured a 2-1 win to keep Leeds up.
The Blame Game
Leeds may have pulled their chestnuts out of the fire at the last, but an honest assessment of what went wrong needs to be had. The biggest factor was undoubtedly injury. It started in preseason with midfielder Kalvin Phillips missing the opening day loss in Manchester along with centre back Diego Llorente. Matters only got worse when top scorer Patrick Bamford went down in September and started just one more game all season. Phillips and captain Liam Cooper barely played half the season, Bamford played just 10 games with Robin Koch, Luke Ayling, Adam Forshaw, Jamie Shackleton and Pascal Struijk all missing significant chunks of the season. Even Stuart Dallas succumbed to a serious knee injury during the crucial run in.
Injury is unfortunate luck, but most of the blame for Leeds’ struggles has to be placed at the feet of the board. The summer recruitment was poor with the failure to sign a central midfielder a glaring mistake. Leeds had tried to sign Connor Gallagher on loan, but the Chelsea man opted instead for Crystal Palace where he enjoyed a stellar campaign, but Leeds surprisingly didn’t move to a secondary target. The first team players they did add; Junior Firpo and Dan James have both endured a torrid campaign, although James’ season comes with the caveat of being played out of position.
When the January transfer window opened, it was expected Leeds would add to their squad to rectify their poor summer. However, Leeds failed to add a single first team player despite the ongoing injury absence of key trio Cooper, Phillips and Bamford. Leeds tried to add US international Brenden Aaronson, but when that didn’t work, they again didn’t move on to an alternative target. Managing Director Angus Kinnear stated at the end of the window that Leeds would not add players and instead would look to develop their existing Under 23 players.
It was a statement of confidence that the team was good enough to stay the Premier League, and yet three weeks later they fired Bielsa on the grounds they needed to make the move to preserve their Premier League status.
For all Bielsa brought to Leeds, he isn’t blameless in Leeds’ issues this term. His insistence of operating with a small squad made life difficult this season, a strategy made worse by COVID outbreaks meaning fit players could become randomly ill. It is not Bielsa’s way to compromise, but sticking with the primary plan of man marking when the squad was heavily depleted made Leeds horrendous goal difference far worse.
Marsch made errors too and some of his comments in press conferences were naïve. His largest mistake may have been playing star creative talent Raphinha at wing-back. Marsch will have to improve the style of play at Leeds, but having achieved his base objective of staying up, he has earned a transfer window and preseason in which to build his own team.
Summer of Change Ahead
Leeds fans can look forward to the summer with hope, safe in the knowledge they won’t be spending the year in the Championship. Marsch is safe, but an overriding question will be whether Chairman Andrea Radrizzani will sell his majority stake in the club to the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers have a clause to buy out the remainder of the club (56%) from Radrizzani running until January of 2024. However, after a difficult year, there is speculation the takeover will be completed this summer. Regardless of who is in charge, it’s beyond doubt that Leeds need significant investment in the squad this summer.
The top priority will be to commit new a long-term contract to Phillips. Had Leeds gone down, the England star would have been a near certainty to leave, but he has stated he wants to stay and a new deal needs ironing out quickly. One player likely to go is Raphinha, the Brazilian has been Leeds best player by a country mile this season, but Barcelona hold a firm interest in him. If he does go, it will now be for an enormous fee and and with the blessing of the club.
There will also be questions around record signing Rodrigo. The Spain international has flattered to deceive in two seasons with Leeds and has never found a fixed position with the team. There won’t be pressure to sell and the player does appear committed to the cause. However, would Leeds be tempted by an offer from La Liga? Other major outgoings are likely to be restricted to on-loan players such as Helder Costa and Kiko Casilla, who don’t look to have a future back in Yorkshire.
Leeds’ commitment to young players is part of their make up, but having set a Premier League record for most academy debuts in a season, they now have to consider who might benefit from a year on loan. Joe Gelhardt has made a huge impact in limited appearances this season and is certain to be retained while Sam Greenwood has progressed enormously under Marsch and will be staying. Of the other youngsters, Right Back Cody Drameh went on loan to Cardiff, but is likely to be returning to Leeds where other options in Ayling and Dallas are both set to miss the start of next season. Among Leeds’ other bright young players in Lewis Bate, Charlie Cresswell, Leo Hjelde, and Crysencio Summerville, they will attract interest in the loan market and Leeds may let at least one of them leave in the short term to gain experience.
In terms of recruitment, Director of Football Vitor Orta has been the subject of scathing criticism and will need to provide a better summer than last. Leeds need a left-back, as last summer’s big signing Firpo struggled poorly this term. Although, Leeds will keep Firpo now that he has had a year to settle.
Leeds went through the entire Bielsa era without buying a central midfielder. To make Marsch’s preferred 4-2-2-2 or 4-2-3-1 system work, they urgently need to add another midfielder to partner alongside Phillips. The No. 10 position has been problematic since Pablo Hernandez departed and Leeds look set to go back in for US international Aaronson to address their lack of creativity. If Raphinha does leave a replacement will be needed on the right wing possibly meaning Leeds revive their interest in Noa Lang. Finally, they need a striker to provide competition and back up to Bamford. Neither Gelhardt nor James are target-men, and while both are important to Leeds, the team desperately missed Bamford’s ability to hold up the ball and bring others into play.
This was ultimately a disappointing season that saw Leeds sail close to the wind that blew Sheffield United back to the EFL a year ago. Now, they must provide a summer of investment to prevent another nerve shredding season.