THERE is only so much satisfaction a club can take from a clear-out of players as vast as the one seen at Leeds.
A cull was imperative and Leeds pushed it to the final hours of the transfer window but the list of departures over the summer represented a catalogue of mistakes, disappointments and wasted money.
“How much is lost,” Andrea Radrizzani asked rhetorically during an interview last month. “The frustration is a lot.” But the cost to him and the club itself has been softened by the success in removing so many players from the wage bill and the training pitches at Thorp Arch. Even before his appointment as head coach, Marcelo Bielsa had decided that specific players would move on. By Friday’s 5pm deadline every one of those was gone.
The exodus of players with contracts for this season totalled 24, rounded off by development-squad forward Oliver Sarkic leaving for the Spanish third division at the very last minute. Seventeen of those departures were made on loan – situations which Leeds will need to address again at a later date – but the sweeping of the decks has gone some way to rectifying the errors in recruitment made over the course of last season.
Bielsa’s judgement on certain footballers was not based on ability. In some cases, as with Vurnon Anita, he was not prepared to retain a 29-year-old as third choice when an academy product like Jamie Shackleton could do the same job. With others, like goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald, the need for a change was glaring to anyone who had watched him wilt in the Championship.
Leeds split their squad into three groups – yes, no and maybe – and only Mateusz Klich climbed the ladder. Bielsa, who warned from the start that at least 15 players were at risk, rarely wavered on anyone else.
“We’ve been very clear on who isn’t part of the project,” Radrizzani said.
That some departures came so late in the window – Caleb Ekuban to Turkish side Trabzonspor 48 hours before the deadline, Anita to Willem II in Holland the following day and Eunan O’Kane to Luton Town on the cusp of the August 31 deadline – was indicative of Leeds’ determination to claw back as much in fees and wages as they could.
The club were resigned to cutting unavoidable losses and mindful of balancing the recovery of cash with the reduction of surplus or idle players at Thorp Arch but Luton took on a sizeable percentage of O’Kane salary and, in the closing stages of the window, Leeds were surprised to find Dutch side Zwolle willing to cover the whole of Ouasim Bouy’s wage.
Bouy, the former Juventus midfielder, has been a mystery of a signing and an individual since Leeds took him on a free transfer and gave him a four-year deal last August. Now 25 and no longer the prodigious talent who Juventus jumped on in 2012, he arrived without fanfare, spent the first half of last season kicking his heels with Cultural Leonesa in Spain and came back to Leeds without ever bothering the first-team pecking order.
The sweeping of the decks has gone some way to rectifying the errors in recruitment made over the course of last season.Phil Hay
Head coaches before Bielsa saw little enthusiasm or ambition in him and Bouy made sporadic appearances at Thorp Arch during pre-season, a player under contract but one who Leeds had already admitted defeat with. When Bielsa was asked about him prior to Bouy joining Zwolle, he referenced three different surplus players – O’Kane, Anita and Ekuban – and talked up their professionalism instead.
O’Kane and Anita were left in no doubt that, as experienced players, new pastures were in their best interests. Leeds felt more open-minded about Ekuban, who scored against Galatasaray on his debut for Trabzonspor over the weekend, but his loan included the option of a permanent move next summer.
The same clause was negotiated when Leeds sent Yosuke Ideguchi, their Japanese fish-out-of-water, to Greuther Furth in Germany’s Bundesliga II, dispatching him to a country where other Japan internationals – Makoto Hasebe, Takashi Inui and Takuma Asano – have fared better than Ideguchi did during his loan at Cultural Leonesa last term.
Ideguchi has been something of a sad story since arriving from Gamba Osaka for £500,000 at the turn of the year, a prospect who looked more than a little lost in Europe. On Sunday he was in the squad for the first time as an unused substitute as Greuther Furth won 1-0 away at MSV Duisburg.
Leeds’ higher expectations are for some of their academy loanees: Mallik Wilks at Doncaster Rovers, where he has scored three times, Lewie Coyle at Joey Barton’s Fleetwood Town, Paudie O’Connor nearby in Blackpool, Tyler Denton with League One leaders Peterborough United and Liam Kitching at Harrogate Town.
United are also quietly hopeful that Jay-Roy Grot, after a grim first year in England, will mature and grow at VVV Venlo in Holland. Of the other departures from the Under-23s, the future is less certain. Sarkic, Alex Machuca, Adrian Balboa and Oriel Rey took up temporary deals in Spain’s lower leagues and while Bielsa concentrated his mind on trimming the senior squad, Radrizzani was as clear that United’s development squad – swollen by numerous signings during his first 12 months as owner – could not stay as it was.
“We have a lot of millions in Under-23 salaries,” he told the YEP. “It’s too heavy for this club.”
From the starting point of Madger Gomes’ switch to Sochaux in May, the process of streamlining United’s respective dressing rooms has been tireless: at least one player a week packing up between the start of the transfer window on May 7 and the EFL’s loan deadline last Friday.
If it goes down as the summer of the long knives, only Ronaldo Vieira – sold for £7.7m to Sampdoria – failed to see his coming.
“I saw every game and every minute of last year and I also listened to the opinion of the club,” Bielsa said. From that moment, there was no way back.