Long time no see, friends. Regular readers will know I try not to immerse myself into ‘silly season’ too much, in that I’m often quietest during the Summer break because I rarely wish to delve too deeply into the nonsense, here-say and rumour that dominates the Internet throughout the pre-season. But there are a few pertinent points worth mentioning – specifically the “very Leeds” question of “do we actually have a plan, here?”.
The answer to that question is almost certainly “yes”, given we managed to convince El Loco to remain for his difficult second season. Having faded away in such spectacular fashion in the 2018/19 campaign it seemed right that a man of Bielsa’s intrigue wanted a second tilt at promotion. Though if we (and he) thought that the previous campaign was going to be difficult to repeat (having commented that he had extracted as much performance from the current squad as he felt was available) this was only going to get harder as Leeds stumbled into the transfer window.
Kalvin Phillips, Pontus Jansson, Jack Clarke and Kemar Roofe were all names eagerly touted around the rumour-mill, social media and red-top publications. It’s only natural that after a season of over-achieving that key figures within that particular narrative would draw attention from the deeper pockets of the Premier League. It then became a debate amongst Leeds fans; not of whether they would accept a player going, but accepting the inevitability of it, instead electing to debate “who” they sacrifice.
The universal thread throughout many a raging debate was the importance of retaining Kalvin. A player whose entire future has been re-shaped by Bielsa – previously written off as a merchant of reckless challenges and sideways passes, now jovially referred to as “The Yorkshire Pirlo”. Both in terms of how un-pressured, un-rushed and un-phased he appears on the ball, but also in terms of his incredible range of passing. The entire Bielsa tactical system relies on Phillips and it was perceived amongst fans that any outbound transfer needed to be anyone but him.
Alas, fans aren’t consulted on such moves anyway and Leeds have found two of these four figures moving on from the club. Clarke went first, adopted by Spurs as part of their continued intent to acquire and develop young talent – though he was immediately loaned back to Leeds. A deal you could argue is good for both parties – Clarke hadn’t really demonstrated anything more than fleeting moments of potential in a turbulent 2018/19 campaign, so it seemed a fair gamble for Leeds and Spurs to agree to the sale. Many a young player has looked promising in a sequence of substitute appearances only to tumble down the pecking order as they amount to little more than being a reliable option to unleash upon tired defenders. Equally, Jack demonstrated enough direct attacking flair that it was only natural that Premier League scouts would take note. A fee as high as £10m seems a suitable middle-ground for both sides. The fact the player was loaned back means Leeds don’t miss out on his abilities, should they more reliably manifest themselves, that is.
The more controversial move was Jansson’s. A fan favourite who many (rightly) identified as one of the best defenders outside the Premier League. Not many people ended the season thinking that Pontus’ time at Leeds would end the way it did – but football is a funny old game. Word sneaked out of the club that Bielsa didn’t like his attitude – and this sentiment seemed to snowball. Dissent, disagreement and disharmony seemed to revolve around Pontus… Bielsa and the club had decided that he wasn’t the kind of character they wanted to retain and a switch to Brentford seemed to happen quite quickly. This wasn’t comfortable for fans (myself included) who had seen his dominant physical character paired with his composed defending and naturally concluded that fending off Premier League interest would be challenging. It’s sad, then, that his time at Leeds doesn’t end with the long-rumoured £15-20m switch to Southampton, but instead a move to a Championship London club for a third as much.
The player would publicly state that Brentford was a really good option for him but the truth felt like it was in the words no one spoke. That were the player not troublesome behind the scenes then he’d be plying his trade in a higher league – alas, the fact that Brentford were one of (if not the only) option to stay in England (and that the value was somewhere between £5-6m) fills in some of those unspoken gaps. Personality aside, Pontus will be a footballing loss for Leeds United.
Ben White joined the club as a defensive option and it feels uncomfortable that he’s our sole cover for Jansson’s departure. If there are lessons we could learn as a club from the 2018/19 campaign, a lack of depth is certainly one worth considering. In various areas our difficulty adding senior experience caused problems. While Leeds have always (Cellino underinvestment aside) enjoyed a youth setup suitable for back-filling gaps in the senior team. The strategic model of having Carlos Corberán employ the same tactical system as Bielsa (and indeed having Bielsa’s watchful eye over the development squad) has narrowed the gap between the two squads, meaning youth players can easily deputise in the first team where needed. But relying on this as Plan A is perhaps not the best option for a promotion campaign, instead leaning on this as a remarkably good Plan B.
It seems worrying (to me) to enter our Centenary year with our depth at centre-back being Cooper, Berardi and White. Perilously thin and ominously lacking senior experience. Doubly so when Cooper and Berardi have both demonstrated incredible ability to self-destruct in big games. Jansson was hardly infallible in this regard, but he at least offered senior experience that Ben White won’t have as a mere 21 year old.
The big news is Helder Costa though. If Leeds lacked attacking talent last season, the addition of a player of Costa’s ability is a marvellous step forward and the kind of signing we’ve been demanding Leeds make for the longest time. I’m genuinely excited to see what he’s able to do at Leeds.
But with a plethora of youth prospects departing the club (Dalby and Denton having left permanently in just the last few days) it’s made me wonder what the policy is moving forwards – we’re adding talent to the U23 squad all the time, but I believe an England U20 like Denton would surely have been worth keeping for options? But Bielsa knows best. I’d like to think Leeds have more business to do but I doubt it – Phil Hay had always insisted that Leeds would only make limited moves in the market and we’ve done most of those.
The bigger problem is securing key players to longer deals now. Kalvin Phillips needs a long contract befitting his crucial status in the squad. Roofe’s deal expires next Summer, as does Klich’s. This needs addressing very soon. But nailing Bielsa down for a second season isn’t something many clubs have achieved and that’s worth celebrating. I will, however, continue to flinch every time my phone vibrates with Leeds news as (historically) transfer windows haven’t been a happy time for us.