After another disappointing result against Derby (despite it being a semi-positive performance) we’re facing the growing reality that the season has slipped away. Paul Heckingbottom was keen to assert that these games aren’t “must win”, but the harsh truth is that not winning these games is killing any hope we might have had of catching the pack ahead. The gap has stretched to 8 points between Leeds and 6th place, which doesn’t sound insurmountable but with 4 sides in a better position than us to reach that position it doesn’t just mean that we’ve got to close the gap on 6th, we have to out-perform 4 other sides in the process. With 13 games to go there’s precious little room for dropping points.
If we need to start accepting that Leeds are to focus on next season (and after seeing the never-ending mistakes made by this side and our abject inability to learn from them) then there are further harsh realities we may still need to come to terms with.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that there are only a few players at Leeds who you could hope to build a squad around. Jansson, Saiz, Ayling, Vieira and maybe Lasogga. Potentially Phillips too, but otherwise there are a number of players such as Cooper, Alioski, Dallas and Roofe who are capable squad players but aren’t really cutting it in the first team (though do perform well in bursts). I like many of our players a lot, but if we’re honest about quality then we must accept who is and who isn’t good enough. I’ve left Pablo Hernandez off this list because of his age and the uncertainty around his contract – you wouldn’t build a team around a 33 year old – but he’s definitely a first team player for what remains of his time at Leeds.
The problem with good players is that they attract attention from the Premier League. Pontus Jansson will have clubs bidding for him in the Summer and it’s hard to imagine that if Southampton come knocking again both the club and player will have the resolve to resist listening to offers. Saiz, too, is clearly an incredible asset in the Championship and it’s not unlikely that clubs will wish to acquire what he brings. It wouldn’t take much for either key player to decide that the 5-year project at Leeds isn’t quite fast enough to match their ambitions and therefore they should move on. We’ve seen it time and time again. Ross McCormack said it best when he noted that it’s fine that Cellino (laughably, as we now know) had a plan to get Leeds into the Premier League in 3 seasons, but at his age he simply couldn’t take that chance. Jansson and Saiz are both 27, they won’t want to be re-assessing their futures at 30 years old. They’ll need to know within the next 12 months if Leeds are going anywhere meaningful or not and that’s an incredibly big problem for Andrea Radrizzani.
The compounded problem with this is that it hurts Leeds. Many fans argue each transfer window that every player has a price, “I’d sell Jansson for £20m” people will say, “because you can buy a promotion winning side with £20m to invest”. Which is a nonsense argument and has been nonsense for as many seasons as we’ve had to argue against it.
Not once has Leeds selling a key player resulted in a wholesale improvement of the playing squad. Stretching back as far as Howson, Snodgrass, Schmeichel, Gradel, Becchio… the squad got weaker. Ross McCormack’s expensive departure merely paid for Cellino’s first window of ridiculous sub-standard imports. Lewis Cook left for a large sum and all Leeds saw in return was Kemar Roofe, Liam Bridcutt and Marcus Antonsson. Cook would go on to win the U20 World Cup as captain wearing the #4 shirt and start to dominate the Bournemouth midfield, meanwhile Roofe is lucky to be playing most games, Bridcutt has been sold already and Antonsson is out on loan.
Chris Wood would then be sold for another huge fee, and again Leeds haven’t really improved the squad using that money. Adam Forshaw is probably the only player arguably drafted using that money that has added something we didn’t already have, while other transfers have struggled to make an impact (or were done before Wood left).
So in the years we’ve been away from the Premier League, not once has selling important players resulted in an improved playing side. The notion of selling Jansson and Saiz is troubling because history teaches us that the response to this won’t result in a better Leeds United. This is why I think games are must win, not because I don’t have the patience to wait for Paul to build a footballing identity, but because we’re on borrowed time with good players. Pontus Jansson is too good to be 10th in the Championship for 4 more years and clubs like Southampton know that he won’t tolerate that either. Saiz, too, will be easily tempted by better options if progress at Leeds appears to be too slow.
Failing to progress this season inevitably results in going backwards. It did last season. We failed to progress and we lost key players as a result and therefore the momentum halted. In an attempt to rebuild this season we’ve rolled the dice too much and failed to invest in proven talent, so we’re missing the mark yet again. History shows that we’ll sell 1-2 key players this Summer and fail to adequately replace them. This is why clubs like Wolves succeed and Leeds are doomed to never-ending mediocrity. The inability to improve the playing squad season-on-season is what prevents us from improving as a club. You can’t lose 1-2 key players a season when you’re already trying to replace the 1-2 players from the previous 3 seasons.
So the real cost of failing this year means that a huge amount of strain will be placed on an already sketchy looking transfer policy. I don’t have faith in Victor Orta to build a Leeds United that rivals the sides we’ve seen dominate the league. After all, you can’t replace a £10m player with ten £1m players in the hope that at least 2 of them will be £5-6m each and expect to play as well as you did before selling a £10m asset. You just can’t. You can’t sell Chris Wood and then gamble on his replacement and expect to finish higher. Had we sold Cook and brought in Forshaw (as an established, proven entity) you’d perhaps not halt progress. But you can’t run the transfer policy Leeds do and expect to continually improve. However good the scouting network is, however much research you do on players, bringing in players from a different league in a different country will always be a gamble. Football is littered with players who simply couldn’t hack the English game. For every Saiz there’s a Wiedwald.
It’s a transfer policy that needs work and until that’s addressed, games will always be ‘must win’ because we either go up, or we rebuild. There’s very little in-between.