After Securing Survival on the Final Day of the Season, Where Do Leeds United Go From Here?
“GET ME BEER” requested Mateusz Klich on his Instagram story, celebrating with his Leeds United team-mates after escaping the drop on the final day.
A last-gasp deflected strike from winger Jack Harrison, together with Burnley’s defeat at home to Newcastle, promised another season in the Premier League the Yorkshire outfit at the expense of the Clarets.
Klich epitomised the mood amongst supporters, beer or perhaps something even stronger was necessary to savour the moment of Harrison’s winner and to be thankful that the hellish campaign had come to a happy conclusion.
Injuries to key men such as Patrick Bamford, Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips, the spine of the team that had excelled during Marcelo Bielsa’s first three years at the club, poor summer recruitment and, astonishingly, a complete lack of winter recruitment, as well as Bielsa’s man-for-man tactics faltering, saw Leeds struggling at the wrong end of the table.
Jesse Marsch’s tenure hasn’t been plain sailing since taking over from the much-loved Argentine with 12 games remaining, however, given his primary target was to retain Leeds United’s Premier League status, the decision looks vindicated. Going forward though, what needs to be the priorities at the club over the summer?
Reflect on What Went Wrong Last Season
Owner Andrea Radrizzani and Director of Football Victor Orta, heavily criticised for their roles in Leeds’ misfortunes this term, stood delighted and relieved on the pitch at full-time at the Brentford Community Stadium.
Their two gambles, not investing in the squad in January and changing head coach weeks later, had paid off, admittedly by a much finer margin than they’d have imagined.
Recruitment had been poor the previous summer. The only two notable additions to the squad were winger Dan James, £25m, and left-back Junior Firpo, around £13m. Whilst the pair had good pedigree coming from Manchester United and Barcelona respectively, neither were regulars and both were far from being the finished article.
They spent the transfer window chasing midfielder Conor Gallagher before the Chelsea youngster decided to join Crystal Palace on loan, and despite Huddersfield Town star Lewis O’Brien being available for a reported £13m, investment in the middle of the park never came to fruition.
Although Leeds had got away with having a small squad in their first season back in the top-flight, injuries caught up with the Whites this time out. If only there was a month in the middle of the season you could sign new players; the club didn’t see it that way anyway.
Two bids were rejected for RB Salzburg midfielder Brenden Aaronson, but that is as serious as transfer activity got. Whether Bielsa was too stubborn and rejected certain options, whether Orta and his scouting team were unable to present suitable players, or perhaps both, the decision to not invest nearly cost Leeds everything.
Sign Brenden Aaronson
Leading us nicely onto the second point and USA international Brenden Aaronson.
“He is a really pacey player who carries the ball well, has a good eye for a team-mate, reads the game well and is an important factor in Salzburg’s build-up play,” Lee Wingate, The Other Bundesliga podcast, previously told the Yorkshire Evening Post. “Defensively, he is very energetic and presses from the front.”
Brenden Aaronson: Why Are Leeds So Keen on the Salzburg Youngster?
The player has long been admired by Leeds, and their position to land him has surely strengthened given Jesse Marsch’s arrival. The American manager had brought his compatriot to Austria from MLS outfit Philadelphia Union, with the youngster playing an important part in Salzburg’s 2020/21 domestic double.
According to multiple sources, Leeds have agreed a £23m fee with the Austrian Bundesliga champions, with the deal expected to be completed in the coming weeks. Whilst Aaronson wouldn’t need long to familiarise himself with Marsch’s methods, the earlier the deal can be done for all parties the better.
Extend Kalvin Phillips’ Contract
Whilst Kalvin Phillips is contracted to the club until 2024, England’s 2021 Player of the Year has been attracting interest for several suitors, most notably Aston Villa and Premier league victors Manchester City.
Whilst the Villans have recently bolstered their midfield options with the pre-contract signing of Marseille’s Boubacar Kamara, Manchester City have seen a player go out the door as club captain Fernandinho departs the club this summer.
Phillips, an equally combative tackler but with superb passing abilities, would be a sensible acquisition for Pep Guardiola’s side, so putting pen to paper on a new deal at Leeds would help the club command a higher fee were they to sell him, but also to better reflect his importance to the side should they keep him.
In Jesse Marsch’s system, Phillips is deployed in a double pivot similar to his role in the England set up. Seeing Phillips alongside Aaronson next term is something that should excite the Elland Road faithful.
Let Raphinha Depart
When Brazilian winger rocked up in West Yorkshire, fans were excited at what was to come. An unknown quantity to many quickly became a household name, with equal amounts of South American flair, killer finishing abilities and a tireless work rate soon earning him an international call up.
Raphinha, like he had with Leeds, hit the ground running for the Seleção, assisting twice and winning a penalty in a second half debut against Venezuela. In his first start, the former Rennes and Sporting man grabbed a brace.
This season, without Raphinha’s goals, Leeds would have been relegated. The side’s main creative outlet and goal threat, multiplied in the absence of Patrick Bamford, the winger netted 11 times, notably from the spot in the Whites’ final day victory at Brentford.
Raphinha: Bielsa’s Brazilian Star Forcing Himself into Seleção Contention
No Leeds fan could begrudge Raphinha of a move from Elland Road. Barcelona have long been touted as a destination for the Brazilian, with agent Deco reported to be in constant dialogue with the Catalan club. Raphinha deserves to play at the highest level possible and, now Leeds don’t have a relegation release clause to worry about, the club look ready to make a huge profit on their £17m investment two years ago.
Similar to Aston Villa’s approach following the sale of talisman Jack Grealish, using the money to add a number of top-quality additions to the squad and become less reliant on one man would be sensible.
Cash In on Rodrigo Moreno
Two years on from Spanish international Rodrigo Moreno becoming Leeds United’s record buy, £30m, and most supporters would struggle to answer the question, what is he?
Brought in as a striker, chances up front for the Spaniard proved few and few between in his first season at the club, thanks in most part to the fine form of Patrick Bamford. With the England forward on the sidelines for most of this campaign, Marcelo Bielsa and then Jesse Marsch both experimented with winger Dan James leading the line, preferring to use Rodrigo as a 10.
Things haven’t exactly gone to plan in an attacking midfield role either. Chipping in with six goals and just one assist this campaign, Rodrigo’s tendency to be too slow releasing the ball and often not be up to speed with play often leaves fans frustrated with his displays.
Whilst letting the forward go would deprive supporters of a catchy chant to Kingston Town by UB40, if Leeds are going to recoup any money for the 31-year-old, now is the time to do it.
Other Additions to the Squad
Reports suggest that Leeds are actively pursuing an unnamed Premier League striker, with former loanee Eddie Nketiah the name on everyone’s lips. Out of contract at Arsenal, the edition of a proven goalscorer to the squad would help relieve the burden on Patrick Bamford and expectance on wonderkid Joe Gelhardt.
Despite Illan Meslier recording the most saves in last season’s Premier League, the young French stopper has made a number of high-profile mistakes. Bar an injury at Wolves, Meslier played every minute of the campaign, down in part to a lack of competition for his jersey.
Backup goalkeeper Kristoffer Klaesson has struggled for the club’s U23 side, so signing an experienced head to push Meslier would be beneficial. England international Sam Johnstone is a free agent following his exit from West Brom and would be a fine signing for the club, although he is likely to have a number of options to explore.
Junior Firpo was signed to replace cult-hero Ezgjan Alioski, with the versatile Macedonian leaving for the Saudi Pro League. The former Barcelona man has struggled in his first season in England, notably racking up 11 bookings in just 24 appearances. Whilst his spell at Leeds has been blighted by injury, the jury is still very much out on whether the Spaniard has what it takes to succeed at this level.
As the curtain falls on a nail-biting Premier League campaign that saw Leeds United cling on to their top-flight status by the skin of their teeth, lessons will have to be learnt and planning for next season needs to start in earnest. A case study of what not to do for clubs looking to avoid second season syndrome in the future, Leeds have a pivotal few months ahead.
By: Jack Douglas / @JDouglasSport
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Williamson – AMA / Getty Images