Leeds United are in shock. A club that spent 185 days of the Championship season in the automatic promotion places and held their destiny in their own hands with 4 games to play, won’t be playing in the Premier League next term. Having dropped out of the top two and ending up in the playoffs they then held a 2-0 aggregate lead on the stroke of half time in the semi-final second leg against Derby County, a team they’d beaten twice in the regular season. Then a moment of high farce from goalkeeper Kiko Casila handed Derby a lifeline and proved the catalyst for an extraordinary comeback to send Leeds crashing 4-3 on aggregate.
It was a strange emblematic way to end one of the most bizarre seasons in living memory. A season that saw Leeds play the most exciting football witnessed at Elland Road since David O’Leary’s side came within 1 game of the Champions League Final back in 2001, then cause national debate over the ‘Spygate’ affair, then allowed a walk-in equaliser for Aston Villa after a controversial opening goal in a 1-1 draw. Leeds finished the season in their highest league position since their Premier League relegation in 2004 and with a points total just 2 shy of their club record in the second tier, set by Howard Wilkinson’s promotion winners of 1990.
It was a mad season of highs and lows and all down to one man, manager Marcelo Bielsa. Despite coming up short it’s the universal opinion of Leeds fans that the club must retain Bielsa, because the Argentine has ultimately provided something this club hasn’t known in a long time, hope.
Leeds seemed on a roll back in 2010 when then manager Simon Grayson ended the club’s embarrassing three year stay in League One with promotion back to the Championship and provided a thrilling FA Cup run. However, Grayson was fired in 2012 by controversial chairman Ken Bates. What followed over the next 6 years was a revolving door of managers and one bad owner after another from Bates to the hapless GFH Capital to the madcap Massimo Cellino.
Current majority shareholder Andrea Radrizzani freed himself from the usual cynicism that greets Leeds owners when he bought back the club’s Elland Road stadium in his first act as owner. However it wasn’t until the arrival of Bielsa that fortunes on the pitch were revived, as he took a squad that finished 13th the previous season and with few additions guided them to a third place this year. The question now is where does the club go from here?
Will He Stay or Go?
The first issue for Leeds is will Bielsa return for the 2019/20 season? The manager’s three year contract is effectively three one year deals with a gentleman’s agreement that should Bielsa want out, he can go. Bielsa is an unpredictable man but the noises from his representatives seem to suggest he will be back for a second season in West Yorkshire. Bielsa told reporters after his teams playoff exit he would consider the clubs proposals for next season as the club quickly activated their option to keep him. Bielsa is seeking assurances of changes to the clubs Thorp Arch training facility and guarantees on transfers and the player wage budget.
However Bielsa isn’t a man to second guess so Leeds will need a plan B should Bielsa opt to leave in the coming weeks. Chris Hughton, who was surprisingly axed by Brighton last week has been mentioned as an alternative, having achieved promotions with Brighton, Norwich and Newcastle. Hughton is a defensive manager whose style of play may require an overhaul of the current squad, the same could be said of both Sam Allardyce and David Moyes.
Should Leeds need a new manager this summer the best fit would appear to be former Fulham boss Slaviša Jokanović . The Serbian achieved promotion with a similar brand of football to Bielsa and has worked under a similar system at Fulham with a Director of Football calling the shots on recruitment.
Evolving the Squad
Bielsa has previously stated he doesn’t think the current Leeds squad can reach the same heights next season and most pundits agree that Leeds overachieved with the players at their disposal. There is talent and a highly productive academy system that saw the Under 23s win the Development League and produce first team players. But Leeds will need to upgrade in key positions to go again for promotion whilst retaining a promising nucleus of Jack Clarke, Kalvin Phillips, Pontus Jansson, Mateusz Klich and Pablo Hernandez.
Leeds don’t have any first team players’ contracts expiring the summer but 6 players including Klich, Hernandez and top scorer Kemar Roofe all have just 1 year remaining on their current deals. It’s not ideal to be renegotiating contracts having just missed out on promotion and this is where Director Paraag Marathe could prove a useful asset. Marathe got on the Leeds board when the San Francisco 49ers bought a 10% share in the club last year and Marathe is the man who negotiates the 49ers player contracts.
Marathe was widely lauded for structuring quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s new deal in a way that retained the team’s best player whilst giving the team the options to move on should he not work out. Leeds will almost certainly try to extend Roofe, Klich and Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s deal whilst moving on from Stuart Dallas and Gaetano Berardi, and allowing Hernandez to see out his current deal at the end of which he’ll be 35 years old. Roofe could prove problematic as he’s due a big pay rise and may attract Premier League interest.
Leeds must make better use of the loan market this summer, after a disastrous trio of loan signings from Chelsea in Izzy Brown, Jamal Blackman and Lewis Baker. Manchester City’s Jack Harrison showed occasional moments of quality but his erratic contribution has to be compared to those of other Championship loan signings such as Harry Wilson, Kieran Dowell, Tyrone Mings and Tammy Abraham all of whom were far more impactful. Liverpool’s Ben Woodman, Manchester City’s Matt Smith and Arsenal duo Emile Smith-Rowe and Eddie Nketiah could be amongst the best young loanees available this summer to Championship clubs and Leeds need to choose carefully.
Leeds are being linked with Brentford’s out of contract defender Yoann Barbet who turned down a new deal at Griffin Park and would upgrade the defence that struggled towards the end of the season. With Championship and Premier League clubs releasing their retained lists for next season there are a few intriguing veteran players up for grabs who could do well in the Championship next season including Shinji Okazaki, Phil Jagielka and Jason Puncheon.
It’s questionable how much Leeds have to spend this summer with Radrizanni angrily denying reports the club could be forced to sell key players. Nethertheless it seems unlikely Leeds will spend huge this summer. Leeds have been active in signing youngsters to their under 23s and look likely to add Barcelona B’s Rafa Mujica in the coming weeks. In terms of players who can make an immediate impact QPR winger Luke Freeman has been persistently linked with Leeds with the London club needing to cut costs this summer.
Looking to the Future
For once Leeds are not picking through the bones of an underwhelming campaign, but as their recent history has shown momentum can be quickly lost if a club fails to build on a promising season. Leeds are one of the top 10 supported teams in England which hints at the club’s potential, but it remains just potential away from the riches of the Premier League.
If Derby go on to win the playoff final next week, it will leave Leeds the second longest serving member of the current Championship behind Nottingham Forest. Next season marks the club’s centenary and whilst they would have dearly loved to spend it in the Premier League, a promotion campaign would be almost as good. As their most famous supporter Russell Crowe remarked on Twitter ‘Leeds…next year. We’ll be right.’
Image Credit: SuperSport