Groundhog Day. Leeds enter the January transfer window with problems and an uncertain ability to resolve them. If we accepted that Leeds had a fairly lean squad in the Summer, it’s practically skeletal now. Jamal Blackman has returned to Chelsea with a broken limb, Lewis Baker has been recalled due to lack of game time, Samu Saiz has left for personal reasons and we’re struggling with injuries galore.
Bamford was our halo signing and hasn’t meaningfully contributed to the season yet. Izzy Brown joined injured and it isn’t known if he’ll even be able to contribute at all. Cooper/Berardi have both been in-and-out of the side carrying knocks, Ayling was out for a long time too. It’s been fortunate that Leeds have had a talented Academy to rely on – bringing Clarke, Shackleton and Halme through has glossed over gaping holes in the first team – but the mantra with which we began the season seems to be eroding slightly.
The intention was to have a senior squad that was carefully augmented by younger talent without becoming over-reliant on them. Not because they aren’t good enough, but history is littered with starlets broken by the weight of expectation placed on them by immediate exposure to first-team pressure. That’s why Jack Clarke is being used sparingly – he’s only 9, as much as he’s our most dangerous winger at present it’s a very different thing being an impact-sub versus being relied on for 90-minutes every game. The fans get on your back far quicker (just look at Alioski).
Bielsa not prepared to expand any further on transfers. Says he's said as much as he wants to say: "We're lacking 10 players. If the club can bring in players, we'll take them only if they are better than what we have. If nobody comes, we will solve the problem anyway." #lufc
— Phil Hay (@PhilHayYEP) January 9, 2019
The reason fans are tense is because this isn’t their first rodeo. We’ve been tantalisingly close to promotion beforehand but a lack of investment made us watch those hopes slip away. The notion of being top of the league, with a world class coach and some obvious (solvable) gaps in the playing squad isn’t a comfortable one – though we’re rather insulated from the business side of the game. Operationally (and financially) it looks simple to us – £20m now could equal £400m later, but the reality is that it’s never that simple.
Bielsa is clinging to his calm, pragmatic professionalism and he’s right to do so. If we don’t sign the players the squad needs, the solution is to lean on the Academy. By hook or by crook, there’ll be players in position for every game. But how far can Leeds reasonably progress on this model? How far can we grow with young players making senior debuts in crucial games, potentially in positions they don’t specialise in? Under Bielsa it’s impossible to write anything off. Our successes have recently come from an unusually make-shift squad, but it’d be foolish to consider that a working and scalable model. Sure, we’ve got this far, but considering Plan B as our new Plan A is a dangerous precedent.
The Derby game on Friday is now disproportionately important in the minds of many fans. In reality, a few consecutive losses won’t end our season, but there’s a symbolism being applied to our fixtures that adds unfair pressure to everyone involved. A horrendous performance against Hull followed by a spirited (if not error-filled) result against Forest has made many incorrectly conclude that the bubble has burst. Which is perhaps an unkind assessment of how far Bielsa has dragged this squad, and how crucial the synergy between U23 and senior teams is. The fact that players can rise from the U23’s into a familiar system gives us so many more options when fate inevitably turns against us.
The problem is – January is an appalling time to sign players permanently. Otherwise you’re relying on loans from Premier League sides – and these players are often returning from injury (like Brown) or not match sharp (Baker). Bielsa expects his squad to not only be incredibly fit, but he resists throwing people in immediately. They need to eat, breathe and sleep his tactical philosophy before they can be considered ready for involvement in the first team. So any signings that come in this January are unlikely to play until February.
We have a horrible run of difficult fixtures coming up. It’s “men vs. boys” time.