I was reading Moscow’s brilliant piece about Samu Saiz and Leeds United being two souls entwined and while his troubled footballing past is noteworthy, he’s not alone. It occurred to me that this squad is filled with players seeking a form of redemption, from their pasts, from the fans, from previous managers and sometimes from themselves.
Samu Saiz is comfortably covered by Dan’s TSB piece – a maligned player with abundant ability but somehow unable to silence the naughty demons in his soul enough to flourish on the pitch. Yet, at Leeds, he seems to be a cut above his already impressive peers. But broader than the Spaniard’s shining transformation, we have plenty of players here to make a point.
Pontus Jansson is a great example of this. Struggling with a knee injury at Torino, the Italian club were unclear whether the player would need knee surgery and subsequently limited his chances. The towering Swede was confident in his fitness and desperate for a club to put faith in him. Leeds were just that, and what resulted feels like an era-defining relationship between player and club. There aren’t many players you could hope to compare Jansson to outside of top-flight football and his “blood and thunder” on-pitch persona resonates with the fans in ways you could barely attempt to explain. With every fist-clenched scream towards the Kop, kicking the hoarding and demanding noise from the crowd – we just fell in love that little bit more. Jansson’s redemption story was little more than rewarding the club who took a gamble on him. The player felt he was fit and healthy and Leeds’ belief in him has been rewarded by a player with 5 times his transfer value.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga is here with a point to prove, too. A player who had previously been labelled a “rising star” with a call-up to the senior Germany side, only to be ruled out through injury and fail to meet that potential. A player German fans had criticised for being lazy. A player a senior management official had referred to as “the worst signing of all time” (though largely due to his relative wage and lack of playing time due to not fitting the system they elected to play). Lasogga is a man with enormous potential and undoubted ability, yet faces endless questions about his application. Even prior to joining Leeds, most fans (myself included) were skeptical, instead wondering why Leeds weren’t favouring more in-form, proven players. This is the foundation for the redemption PML seeks at Leeds. To prove to the footballing world (and himself) that he’s capable of working hard and applying his ability. In his first few games he has certainly shown him to be a tenacious, hungry player who is intelligent on-and-off the ball.
Eunan O’Kane has a very different redemption story to play out. This isn’t about demonstrating anything to himself or to fans, but to prove Garry Monk wrong for continually excluding him. We’ve seen enormous quality in the Irishman so far this season, enough that people have been openly questioning the judgement of Monk who clearly didn’t favour the midfielder. O’Kane’s story is one of redeeming himself for a season spent wishing and wondering why he is being overlooked.
Kalvin Phillips has a similar story and is perhaps one of the most unfairly maligned on this list. Phillips has needed to convince a large section of the fanbase of his quality. Loud were the voices of those who felt his only contribution to games was mis-placing passes and wasting opportunities. Loud were the voices of those who felt he was only liked by others because of his fondness for hard tackles. Yet, while many of us have loved KP from the start, he still has needed to prove himself to his detractors and he’s certainly getting traction in this regard. According to WhoScored, after 7 games, Kalvin is the 9th highest rated player in the entire Championship with 3 goals to his name. Not much else needs saying.
Liam Cooper’s transformation into Kyle Bartley has been astonishing to see. Most fans (myself included) had written “League One Liam” off after some less-than-impressive performances in the last couple of years. The introduction of Kyle Bartley alongside Pontus Jansson had seemingly highlighted the gulf in quality between KB and LC, suggesting if we wished to be a playoff (or better) side, we needed players better than Cooper. And we were wrong. Or at least, we’ve been wrong so far. Liam has not only upped his game beyond any expectation, but demonstrated himself as a strong and valuable leader. The captain’s armband is a heavy burden at Leeds (though that’s because it used to signify who was moving to Norwich next) and Cooper has accepted this responsibility with maturity and enthusiasm. His all-round play has been better and the majority of fans now consider him to be a difficult first-team player to displace.
Kemar Roofe is another with a point to prove. A “big ticket” item (as far as our transfer policy allows) that was soured by the proximity to Cook’s departure, but Roofe was definitely a player with ability. The problem was (as it always has been) that a step-up (from League Two to the Championship) takes time to adjust, especially when not played in the position you had practiced most. There were growing noises from the fans that Roofe was reaching ‘last chance saloon’, and that he either needed to start showing more, lest he be labelled an expensive flop. Like the others in this post, he has stepped up in a big way. Perhaps emboldened by a footballing philosophy that places greater importance on players of his ilk, Roofe has proven himself a capable creator and competent finisher. In 8 appearances he has got 5 goals and 1 assist, though this doesn’t tell half the story. His movement and intelligence fit beautifully in this new-look Leeds and if he keeps it up, the voices suggesting fan good grace is expiring will fade into silence.
Stuart Dallas is someone I’ll only cover briefly, but is another player with a point to prove. Most had started to write him off already – many were entertaining selling him to Norwich – because while he showed endeavour, there were questions over his quality. But the Stuart Dallas we’ve entered this season with is a totally different animal to the one we’d seen previously. Though, like Phillips, he is finding himself needing to find redemption with fans critical of his prior performances.
The only remaining name on this list of souls seeking redemption is Hadi Sacko, and he hasn’t started this chapter well. From initially amusing (then later quite annoying) jokes of “SQUARE IT HADI”, use of his name has deterioated to “where is Hadi?” and “What is going on with Sacko?”. The problem for Hadi is that Leeds have acquired players like Alioski who offer the unpredictable threat he does, but can apply it more regularly and with greater purpose. Where Sacko might run the length of the pitch and dribble it out for a goal kick, Alioski will bring others into play. Similar players with a very different final ball. Sacko’s redemption is a story we don’t know will ever get told. We signed him permanently so there’s intent from the club to utilise him, but in lieu of options like Roofe, Hernandez, Alioski and Saiz, it seems that unless Sacko is able to dramatically up his game, he’ll be destined to play with the development squad.