Since his arrival at Elland Road it’s been tough for Paul Heckingbottom. Hired just two days after the sacking of Thomas Christiansen, Heckingbottom was himself leaving Barnsley FC, a club that was in poor form, winning just one game in his final 15 at Oakwell. Looking around at the other options available at the time, Heckingbottom may well have been the best option. His time in South Yorkshire could mostly be summed up by the number of departures he had to allow for. Time and again, Heckingbottom found most of his better players being sold to clubs above them or sides with much bigger budgets.
With the season coming to a close Heckingbottom may well be facing the opposite problem next season. As a statement of their intent, Leeds United went about handing a number of players long contracts, almost as a remedy to the way that previous owner Massimo Cellino had dealt with a number of players, refusing to give them the contract they deserved and then selling them on at a discounted rate.
We have performed much worse than that this season. That was a game that showed the shortcomings perfectly.— Mighty Whites Pod (@mightywhitespod) April 3, 2018
Cheap players make mistakes, miss sitters, leave players at set-pieces. Fulham nowhere near their best tonight. #lufc #MOT
Peacock-Farrell, Denton, Coyle, Phillips, Vieira, Cooper, Berardi, O’Kane, Ayling, Dallas, Shaughnessy and Jansson all signed new contracts that keep them at the club at least until the end of the 19/20 season and a couple even beyond that. On top of the contracts that were given to the likes of Saiz, Alioski and Wiedwald, Leeds now have a squad with a lot of players tied down. In theory that’s great, but when you’re having a season like Leeds, play-off hopes dashed by the middle of February, suddenly it starts to look like a lot of average players who Leeds have now become stuck with.
One thing that the club have got right is the re-establishing of the under 23s. They’ve hit some fine form and a number of the players are now looking more like they can push for a place in the first team squad. Unless you are financed by a billionaire this is how most squads should be built. A core of 18 to 20 players, with three or four players who can play in a couple of positions with the rest supplemented from the under 23s. That way you are able to allocate higher wages to first team players, instead of having to spread the money out across 32 players.
Currently listed on the First Team page on the club’s website are 27 players. That doesn’t include the likes of Mateusz Klich, Marcus Antonsson, Lewie Coyle or Yosuke Ideguchi. Even Luke Murphy has another year left on his contract. That now puts us at 32 players. The website also doesn’t list the Under 23 players who have played or are on the fringes of the first team, the likes of Tom Pearce, Paudie O’Connor, Jack Clarke, Oriol Rey and Sam Dalby. That leaves us at 37.
All of a sudden it’s not a case that we lack depth in our squad. Just the first team squad alone is big enough to sustain all but the worst of injury crises. In the 99/00 season Leeds used just 19 players in the Premier League on their way to qualifying for the Champions League (this season we have used 27, not including others who have played in cup games). Once the summer finally arrives and saves us from this lame duck of a season, the club need to take a hard look at the squad and really trim the fat. This may mean taking a hit on a couple of players but as it appears that there won’t be a high level of investment from the owner then we need to free up as much of the wage budget as possible and allocate that money to quality players who will improve the side.
Let’s take a quick look at the central midfield options we have: Phillips, Vieira, O’Kane, Forshaw, Anita, Klich, Murphy, Ideguchi. Eight options for what will probably be two places in the starting line-up. Between Radrizzani, Orta and Heckingbottom, decisions need to be made and made quickly. By the time he returns Luke Murphy will have spent the last 18 months on loan at Burton and we’ll have been paying most of his wages for Burton to be up all night for him.
I think we mentioned it on the podcast but I'd like to see Anita get some games in midfield. He must be on a decent wage and it might be worth checking him out before the summer. Either use him or move him on. Would rather see him than O'Kane for a few games - KC #LUFC #MOT— Mighty Whites Pod (@mightywhitespod) April 3, 2018
I have said on Twitter for the last few weeks that I’d like to see Vurnon Anita start a few games in midfield before the end of the season. Do I think he’s going to be the answer for our lightweight midfield problems? Probably not. However, he’s a Dutch international who has made over 100 appearances for both Ajax and Newcastle, winning the Championship last season with the latter. So it’s impressive to me that someone with that pedigree, who will probably be one of the higher earners at the club, certainly on more than Phillips and Vieira who play almost week-in and week-out, does not figure in to a regular place in the team. If he isn’t going to be good enough, he needs to be moved on.
With just one or two exceptions, it has been proven that a club’s wage budget accounts for about 90% of where you finish in the league table. This is because footballers, or more importantly their agents, are aware of their value to the market which allows better players to earn what the market is willing to pay them. Therefore, if Leeds want top quality Championship players, they’re going to have to pay those players top quality Championship wages. If they don’t, other clubs will.
I have already written about just a few of the players that the club will be looking at in the close season and deciding who they want to keep for next season and who they need to get off the wage bill. While a number of those players, the likes of Sacko and Cibicki for example, won’t be particularly high earners, selling two or three of those players will free up some of the wage budget that can be used to bring in someone of a higher caliber.
If Heckingbottom is still here, and I do feel that it’s a big if, next season, he, Orta and Radrizzani need to have a long, hard discussion about how realistic promotion is as a target and which players they need to keep to go about achieving it. The likes of Jansson, Saiz and Hernandez are players who must stay if we are to achieve a top six finish in the Championship for the first time since the 05-06 season. For the likes of Sacko, Klich and Cibicki, unfortunately, I believe they need to be shown the door.