The last year has provided a welcome change to the stereotypical experience of being a Leeds United fan. Rather than languishing in the depths of the Championship or agonisingly missing out on promotion, the Whites achieved a top half finish and a record points total in their first season back in the top flight. Almost £100 million was shelled out on permanent signings last summer, including four new additions. Some of us were perhaps too eager to believe a new precedent had been set.
But an impressive start to life in the Premier League was never going to form an immediate path to European football blessing the Elland Road pitch once more. £100 million windows were never going to become the norm, especially not in a time of financial instability in the sport brought about by Covid. In the past two seasons, Leeds have not received a single penny for any of their outgoing players, ‘restricting’ them to spending just over £53 million this summer (which still saw United boast the sixth-biggest net spend in the Premier League).
There have undoubtedly been at least one or two failings in the last few months, chief among them the failure to acquire a new central-midfielder, an area many believe is in need of improvement. Marcelo Bielsa’s side were reportedly unwilling to spend £8 million on Huddersfield Town midfielder Lewis O’Brien, who by all accounts would have slotted in comfortably with his West Yorkshire neighbours. This has left the Peacocks looking relatively thin on the midfield front, with Rodrigo continuing to struggle to adapt to a pressing-orientated deeper role.
Is it all that bad, though? Keeping in mind the financial landscape football currently finds itself in, as well as the many talents Leeds continue to possess following on from the transfer window and the continued improvement of Mark Jackson’s U23s, the mythical concept that Leeds can only build on last season’s success in the form of a challenge for Europe should not stop us from appreciating what was overall a successful transfer window.
While the number of fresh incomings halved this summer, size is not everything; bringing in what is needed is the priority. Going into the window, three of Leeds’ weakest areas - either in terms of quality or strength of depth - were central-midfield, left-back and out wide. The Whites were successful in improving two of the three positions. Junior Firpo is undeniably a significant upgrade on the outgoing Ezgjan Alioski, while Daniel James is in a much better position than Helder Costa was in terms of providing competition on the flanks (especially given his right-footed preference, which promises to offer Bielsa more variety going forward).
A central midfielder would have been ideal, but the leading figures at Elland Road appear to be content with the tools already available to them. Adam Forshaw, for example, is known to be highly rated by Bielsa, who supposedly believes the injury prone midfielder could be a regular fixture for a Champions League side at the peak of his powers. The 29-year-old looks set to finally put his long term injury issues behind him, and recently made his first competitive appearance in almost two years, starting in the Carabao Cup win over Crewe Alexandra. In the brief period where he formed a capable central trio alongside Mateusz Klich and Kalvin Phillips, Forshaw showed his potential in a Bielsa side, and finding that again this season could fill the void left by the lack of a new signing.
Adam Forshaw— Andrea Radrizzani (@andrearadri) August 26, 2021
Brimming with potential, the best that the U23s have to offer also cannot be ignored as the true depth of Leeds’ 21/22 squad is questioned. It is common knowledge that Charlie Cresswell, Cody Drameh, Lewis Bate, Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville are firmly in Bielsa’s first team plans, as demonstrated by the club rejecting a series of approaches for at least the latter two. Bate, one of the brightest academy talents in English football, was prized away from Chelsea thanks to Leeds’ promise of a clearer path to first team football, and the quality of the player is already obvious to anyone who watches Jackson’s side on a regular basis.
Summerville was arguably ahead of Costa in the hierarchy before the ex-Wolves winger moved onto pastures new in Valencia. Beyond makeshift right-backs Stuart Dallas and Jamie Shackleton, Drameh is the main successor to Luke Ayling in Leeds’ back-line. Gelhardt and Greenwood are the main reinforcements in the event of an injury crisis in the final third. What would be the point in building such a talented U23s side if there were no way for them to gain any sort of responsibility in the first team? While the gap between academy football and the EFL was exposed in last season’s cup defeats to Hull City and Crawley Town, these players are not far off stepping up and replacing some of the older figures in Bielsa’s first team.
| #LUFC’s Youth International Call-Ups— LUFC Youth Academy (@leedsutdacademy) September 1, 2021
D.Van Den Heuvel
Finally, when you are not an elite club crowned with a ‘big six’ status, the transfers you foil are arguably more significant than the transfers you complete. The last year has seen stocks in the likes of Illan Meslier, Kalvin Phillips, Raphinha and Patrick Bamford rise exponentially and attract interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Paris Saint-Germain are rumoured to be keeping an eye on Meslier, some fans of ‘big six’ clubs believe that their sides have a divine right to prize Phillips away from Elland Road, Liverpool were relatively strongly linked with Raphinha and Bamford was touted as a potential Harry Kane replacement at Tottenham Hotspur.
Angus Kinnear, chief executive at Leeds, recently claimed that the club had rejected £100 million worth of bids for their top assets, showing that their rejection of Aston Villa’s big money bid for Phillips in the summer of 2019 was not a one-off. Despite the excitement caused by an exceptional 20/21 season, European football may not be around the corner as of yet, but if Leeds want any chance of writing further history in the Champions League then keeping hold of key players is a major priority. By all means be frustrated by our failure to sign a new central-midfielder, but keeping every top player at Elland Road this summer is arguably even more impressive and significant.
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