Two years ago, Leeds United were a club dreaming of a return to Europe after a fine first season back in the Premier League under the guidance of the iconic Marcelo Bielsa. Yet from that ninth place finish, Leeds have somehow slumped to the cusp of relegation.
Here are 10 mistakes that look set to cost Leeds their Premier League status and how they can get it back:
The 10 Steps Back to the EFL
The Quiet Transfer Window (June-Aug ‘21)
The old adage of fixing the roof whilst the sun’s still shining should have applied to Leeds’ summer dealings after one year in the Premier League. However, having spent big the previous summer, Leeds were quiet and seemed content with consolidation. Left-back Gjanni Alioski left on a free and was replaced by Junior Firpo, a player who struggled with both the intensity of the Premier League and Beilsa’s high pressing tactics. Elsewhere Leeds reinforced their Under-23s team and made an opportunist move for Manchester United’s out of favour winger Daniel James on transfer deadline day. James seemed a perfect fit for a manager who loved pacey wingers, but James also struggled at Leeds.
The only other significant move Leeds attempted that summer was a loan offer for Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher who went on to enjoy a stellar campaign with Crystal Palace. In hindsight after three years Bielsa had taken an ageing squad as far as it could go and Leeds should have found successors for the likes of Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and departing club legend Pablo Hernandez. ‘El Mago’ had a quiet year in the Premier League with age finally taking it’s toll, but even in a low key season, Hernandez still offered creativity from the bench which proved a big miss in the season ahead.
The Endless Takeover Saga (Nov ‘21- Present)
49ers’ Enterprises had been minority stakeholders in Leeds since the summer of 2018 and most expected they would complete a full takeover at some stage. However it came to light in November 2021 that the 49ers had an option to complete a buy-out of the club by January 2024 for a reported £400m. From that point on the actions of the Leeds board resembled a holding pattern with talk of long term objectives and planning for the future suddenly sidelined. With results going against them Leeds needed leadership but it seemed in the boardroom nobody was listening
The Nonexistent Window (January ’22)
Leeds were not in the Premier league bottom three in January ’22, but they were circling too close for comfort. The season was unravelling due to a catastrophic injury list lead by key trio Cooper, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford. Phillips and Cooper would not return to the team until spring and Bamford didn’t complete 90 minutes again that season, with James frequently played in an unfamiliar centre forward role due to a lack of alternatives. Yet despite their thin squad being stretched beyond breaking point Leeds didn’t sign any players in the transfer window. In what became his increasingly deviceive programme notes, Managing Director Angus Kinnear claimed Leeds didn’t need to add new players as they needed to hold a pathway for their young U-23 prospects. As Leeds struggled Kinnear’s comments only poured petrol on an increasingly fraught relationship between the board and supporters.
Sacking Marcelo Bielsa (February ’22)
Kinnear’s confidence in the squad was based on the coaching brilliance of Bielsa, yet the man who took Leeds back to the Premier League and whose face adorned murals across the city was fired on 27th February. It followed a worrying run of four succesive and increasingly heavy defeats. It’s debatable whether or not Bielsa would have kept Leeds up, however sacking him was incredibly harsh. The longer term folly of the decision has been felt this season, sacking Bielsa took away the man who made stars of what looked average EFL players and although Bielsa can’t escape blame for a poor final season it was always a huge gamble to dispense with the man who embodied three years of success at Leeds.
Appointing Jesse Marsch (February ’22)
Within 24 hours of Bielsa’s dismissal came his replacement, former RB Leipizg coach Jesse Marsch. Director of Football Victor Orta insisted having spent a year looking at possible successors to Bielsa that Marsch’s Red Bull style of football was a natural progression from Bielsaball. It became quickly apparent this wasn’t the case. Marsch favoured constant pressing and trying to score within six seconds of turning over the ball with the emphasis on playing through the centre of the pitch, in sharp contrast Bielsa’s team was about dominating the ball and spreading the play as wide as possible. Marsch did keep Leeds up, albeit his four wins were against hapless Norwich and Watford, ten man Wolves and nine man Brentford. However Orta’s belief in what Marsch would bring to Leeds showed his judgement to be fatally flawed and the fans were on his back from then on.
Not Signing a Striker and Left-Back (Summer ’22)
The summer 2022 transfer window was always going to see major changes at Leeds with a new manager in the door and star players Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha both wanting away. Initially Leeds seemed to manager the window well with early moves for Brendan Aaronson, Rasmus Kristensen, Luis Sinisterra and Tyler Adams. However after a good start Leeds spent far too long in a doomed pursuit of AC Milan bound forward Charles De Ketelaere and when that deal failed to materialise didn’t move on to an alternative option in attack. With Bamford coming off an injury hit campaign and no guarantee he would be fit for the new one, this always looked a dicey plan. Another problem area was left-back with Firpo getting a long term injury in the opening game of pre-season and rarely featuring in the Premier League for Marsch. Yet Leeds didn’t sign a specialist left-back.
It seemed on deadline day Leeds had got their act together with a move for Dutch international Cody Gakpo. However when Orta returned from Eindhoven without his target Leeds panicked and went for an alternative striker in Bamba Dieng who turned down a move and left them scrambling at the last minute for an alternative despite sending James on loan to Fulham to make way for a new forward. In the end Leeds brought forward the proposed signing of Wilfried Gnonto from FC Zurich, but Gnonto has spent the season playing on the wing rather than up front. It was clear to all after their positive early moves Leeds finished the window by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Signing The Wrong Striker (January ’23)
Leeds at least learned from their transfer inertia in January 2022 and went all in on improving the team this January. Left sided defender Max Wober was Marsch’s third former Salzburg player signed by Leeds and he proved be far the best, providing a much needed upgrade at left centre back. Leeds then moved to address the striker issue they’d dodged in the summer and made a club record signing in Hoffenheim forward Georginio Rutter. The fans were understandably pleased but Rutter has struggled so far playing just 240 minutes of Premier League football and adding neither a goal nor an assist. The 21-year-old remains a fine prospect who may yet prove an outstanding player for Leeds but it was clearly not the right move in January when players need to make an instant impact. Leeds final arrival in January was US international Weston McKennie who struggled to replace Leeds hero Mateusz Klich who headed to MLS.
Not Firing Marsch Sooner (February ’23)
Many have pointed to Leeds’ 2-1 win over Liverpool in October as a sliding doors moment because it gave more time to Marsch who was by that point clearly out of his depth. It would have been incredibly harsh to sack him on the back of winning at Anfield but when Leeds returned from the World Cup break it was clear Marsch’s team had lost its way and his dismissal looked merely a matter of time. Leeds waited until the January transfer window was closed before sacking Marsch on 6th February. Leaving the next man in with no opportunity to shape the squad and little time to implement change.
The Bungled Manager Hunt (February ’23)
Very few disagreed with Leeds’ decision to remove Marsch however the 15 days that followed laid bare a club with no plan. The first serious approaches were made for Rayo Vallecano boss Andoni Iraola and Feyenoord supremo Arne Slot. The appeal of both managers was obvious, at the time Iraola had Rayo Vallecano sixth in La Liga, an astonishing high for a small club whilst Slot had Feyenoord top of the Eredvisie. Had Leeds approached either manager in October one or the other may have said yes, but neither was ever likely to give up an historic achievement with their current club for a relegation scrap. Having failed to land either target Leeds moved for ex-Ajax boss Alfred Schreuder, however his poor brief stint with the Dutch champions saw the fans rebel and Leeds quickly back tracked. Then came three games under the temporary charge of first team coach Michael Skubala, a man with no management experience. Initially Skubala got a reaction with a battling 2-2 draw at Old Trafford but it quickly unraveled and a costly loss at Everton saw Leeds move to Plan E and appointed former Watford coach Javi Gracia.
Not Hiring Allardyce in February (May ’23)
Gracia picked up ten points from his first six games as Leeds seemed to stabilise under his calmer brand of management. With safety looking close Leeds conceded a surprise equaliser to Crystal Palace at Elland Road. From there Leeds lost 5-1 and began a death sprial to the Championship. With key defender Wober and midfield lynchpin Adams both injured Leeds simply couldn’t stop leaking goals as they set a new Premier League record for goals conceded in a calendar month. That saw the board fire Gracia and finally call time on Orta’s time as Director of Football. In came Sam Allardyce with just four games left to play. It was always desperate move but that has been enough in performances under Big Sam to suggest he might have kept the club up had he replaced Marsch in February or better still October.
The Way Back
Leeds are almost certain to be starting next season in the Championship and few can argue the club doesn’t deserve that fate. However this time shouldn’t prove a repeat of Leeds’ previous relegation in 2004. Back then Leeds were on the verge of insolvency and the club was forced into a fire-sale of players and even Elland Road itself, the Premier League parachute payments used merely to keep the club afloat. This time Leeds are in a fair financial state, they had the second lowest wage bill in this season’s Premier League and have relegation wage reduction clauses in all their player contracts. However the club is currently in a state of flux.
The most pressing question this summer is will be will the takeover saga finally be settled? Radrizzani has increasingly looked like an owner on the way out with reports on Sunday suggesting he is looking to buy fallen Italian giants Sampdoria. Other recent reports saw the 49ers top brass contacting Bielsa about a return to Leeds. That won’t be happening with Bielsa now installed as Uruguay manager, but it did show the 49ers are still committed to buying Leeds and are prepared to be ambitious in taking the club back up. At present the 49ers own 44% of the club but the agreement to buy the club outright is contingent on staying in the Premier League. With that unlikely a new agreement could be in the offing, with the 49ers buying a smaller percentage of Radrizzani’s shares in order to gain a controlling stake with the remainder bought upon promotion. Either way there is a desperate need for clarity at the top of the club and should this saga continue into June Leeds would be in danger of squandering their chance of a quick promotion.
Appoint a New Director Of Football
Whoever is running the club will have to appoint a Director of Football. Orta’s departure drew a lot of the poison from the Elland Road crowd but it has created a vacuum at the club and the void needs filling quickly. The 49ers seem set on employing a team around the next DoF, diluting his power instead of everything coming under one man’s control as happened with Orta. That approach chimes with they way the 49ers have run their NFL front office since 2017. If Radrizzani retains his controlling interest it’s hard to see how a prospective director will take the position with an owner looking to leave, unless the 49ers underwrite his appointment.
The Next Manager
Next up will be the appointment of a new coach and it’s highly unlikely Allardyce will stay beyond this month. Leeds’ competitive advantage from the parachute payments together with the club’s name will make the position attractive. They won’t be going back in for Slot or Iraola but the club have been linked with a move for Brendan Rodgers. The former Liverpool man’s reputation has taken a hit this season at Leicester but he remains a respected coach who could get more out of the current crop of Leeds players. Rodgers’ won’t be easily swayed to go back to the Championship where he hasn’t managed in over a decade, but with the big Premier League jobs seemingly out of his reach the FA Cup winner could be open to a long term project if the Leeds ownership is able to offer one.
Two other names likely to be in the frame are Middlesbrough’s Michael Carrick and Blackburn’s Jon Dahl Tomasson both of whom enjoyed success last season in the EFL, but both missed out on promotion. Tomasson cut his teeth in management by winning back to back Swedish titles with Malmo before joining Blackburn. Tomasson favours an attacking style of play but only attained the same points total last season (69) as Tony Mowbray accrued for Blackburn a year earlier, admittedly he hasn’t been helped by a tight budget at Ewood Park.
Carrick’s Manchester United connections won’t win many friends in Leeds. However having taken Middlesbrough from 22nd to 4th since his appointment last October, Carrick has shown himself to be a promising manager whose attacking style of play has won plenty of admirers. Patrick Vieira was linked with the job in February and is another who has worked well with young players, whilst inevitably Leeds cult hero Lee Bowyer and Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard will be linked with the job.
Finally the squad needs reshaping. Top scorer Rodrigo is certain to go with Illan Meslier, Jack Harrison, McKennie, Robin Koch and Sinisterra are likely departures. Three players the club will try to hold onto will be Wober, Gnonto and Adams, had this key trio not suffered injury in March, Leeds may well be safely looking at another season in the top flight. Adams will attract Premier League interest but his defensive midfield role will be tough to replace and the new manager will attempt to persuade him to stay perhaps offering the captaincy. Gnonto will attract interest from Serie A’s big guns but having broken into the Italy squad playing in Switzerland he may be open to staying and gaining more experience before making a move back to his homeland.
Leeds only success this season has come from the Under 21s who achieved promotion to the top tier of Premier League 2 with Darko Gyabi, Mateo Jospeh, Sonny Perkins and Archie Gray expected to move into the senior squad. Returning loanees Joe Gelhardt, Lewis Bate, Charlie Creswell, Leo Hjelde and Cody Drameh will also boost the squad (assuming Drameh doesn’t win the playoff final with Luton). England Under-21 international Cresswell impressed on loan at Millwall and seems set to slot straight into the first eleven at right centre-back. Of the senior player currently on loan one who may get a second chance is James, the Wales international has struggled at Fulham but could replace Harrison on the left at Leeds.
Record signings Rutter and Aaronson have both endured a rough start to life at Leeds but both are clearly talented and should both be stronger in a second season. Rutter’s signing does have shades of Dominic Solanke’s move to Bournemouth which began with relegation and a goal drought but blossomed in the Championship. Long serving defender Luke Ayling should be back and will be joined by a fit again Stuart Dallas to provide veteran experience to a young team, but things don’t look as clear cut for Cooper or Bamford both of whom have struggled for fitness and form for two seasons. Leeds have just two players out of contract this summer with veteran goalkeeper Joel Robles expected to be offered a fresh deal but injury prone midfielder Adam Forshaw likely to be released.
Leeds will need to add new signings with goalkeeper, left-back, central midfield and an experienced centre forward the major priorities. Who they go for will be dependant on the new manager, new scouting team and budget which brings Leeds back to their central issue for the summer; who’s running the club?
Leeds will have a strong chance to bounce back to the Premier League if they get their house in order over the next few weeks. Burnley’s dominance of the division this season will be the yardstick, indeed the last team to win the Championship who hadn’ been relegated the previou year was Bielsa’s Leeds. However last season also saw Norwich, Watford and West Brom failing to even make the playoffs illustrating it can go either way. The answers Leeds come up with over the next few weeks will determine if they can make a quick escape from the Championship or spend another painful period in the wilderness.