January. A time for sweating out turkey on the treadmill, nightfall before five p.m. and the miserable prospect of having to return to the office for the foreseeable future. It is a time brightened only by the beginning of the winter transfer window in England, a shining beacon of hope for the struggling also-rans in touching distance of the Play-Offs (Leeds, usually), and the bedraggled under-performers in the bottom half. The reason being; the right signing can change the entire chemistry of a team. It’s a lottery, sure, but people win the lottery every day. Or so I’m told.
Now, as you can probably tell, I am a fan of the January transfer window. It breaks up the 46-game EFL season better than any winter break ever would. Managers and owners might hate it and want it consigned to the history books, but us fans and the media rejoice at the possibility of change and evolution. These days, signing a player is greeted like a last-gasp winner against Aston Villa at Villa Park, because more is always better. Investment is always positive. Additions add.
Day one of 2019 and here's the #SkyBetChampionship table.@NorwichCityFC close the gap at the top, @SUFC_tweets up to third and @NFFC on the play-off charge.— Sky Bet Championship (@SkyBetChamp) January 1, 2019
How's it looking for your team? pic.twitter.com/v664rDHyUY
However, taking a look at the Championship table raises a problem this year with the theory. Under Jack Duckworth-impersonator and coaching legend Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United have taken an astonishing fifty-one points from twenty-five games, to leave them sitting pretty at the top of the league. Which, maths fans will have noticed, is an average of more than two points per game, which, football fans everywhere will know, is the form commonly associated with teams who achieve automatic promotion. With the second-best defence and the joint-fourth-best attack, it is very difficult to isolate an area within the team in need of enhancement. How much better could the team possibly be? The stats say Leeds can cruise through January and save their pennies for the summer, where they will be in greater demand. The stats, people, are wrong. And I will tell you why.
Ah. Now, you think I’m going to talk about the infamous Leeds injury list. It’s true; moderate to semi-serious injuries have crippled the Leeds squad throughout this season. Senior squad members from back to front have been struck down at various times, some more than once, meaning that to this point only Mateusz Klich, Ezgjan Alioski, Jack Harrison and Samuel Saiz have emerged unscathed. And Saiz has left the club.
But one of the most intriguing and valuable elements of Bielsa’s tenure has been the response to this. Rather than spending chunks of money replacing crocked stars with experienced pros, the head coach has used Jamie Shackleton, Jack Clarke, Leif Davis, Aapo Halme and Will Huffer. All budding academy players that we thought were being developed for future breakthroughs, but that have in fact emerged as a very useful pool of reserves.
Jack Clarke's last 3 appearances as a sub:— LUFCDATA (@LUFCDATA) December 31, 2018
5 chances created
9 successful take-ons
51/58 successful passes
121+ mins played ⏱
Complete more take-ons (9) in 121+ minutes of football than any other Leeds player over the past three matches. #LUFC pic.twitter.com/DO2zFHRvyK
The combination of Leeds’ eye for a youth player and Bielsa’s preference of coaching younger, impressionable players has made the club’s most recent debutants a highly-capable and pragmatic group, ready and willing to plug the gaps that have emerged and even, especially in the cases of Clarke and Shackleton, have enough of an individual impact to turn heads. This is huge. We don’t have to sign spectacular, arrogant Abel Hernandez-types, because Bielsa doesn’t want to have to deal with their egos anyway. We need only snap up youngsters here and there to be added to this pool of breakthrough players. It’s cost-effective, encourages loyalty, improves the academy and has already begun to improve the first team.
So if our academy stars can fill the boots of those on the treatment table, why do we need to sign anyone? The issue is the teams that have taken the also-ran spots that would usually have been filled by the likes of Leeds around this point in the season, pending their annual collapse. This year, those spots contain the likes of Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Swansea City, Stoke City and Nottingham Forest. Whether through significant investment, receiving parachute payments or high ticket sales, these are five clubs with a lot of money to spend, and they will believe that spending will help them reach those fabled play-off spots in the second half of the season. This may be misguided, but it will happen, and it will change the entire league.
I cite the example of Fulham last season and the signing of Aleksander Mitrovic in January. That one signing gave the club the catalyst they needed to not only charge into the play-offs, but to win them. One player can make all the difference, and Villa, Boro (who have already promised to spend), Swansea, Stoke and Forest will all be looking for that one player. If these clubs can add personnel that can change the playing field, then we need to change it too. We may play the same way all year, but our rivals will not be able to legislate for a new signing doing the business.
Look out for part two of this article, where I will look through some of the players to whom we and others around us have been linked in recent weeks, and then some of those I have personally had my eye on. We may be top dogs heading into 2019, but there is always room for improvement.