Big Kick-Off: Intrigue awaits as Leeds United gamble on a continental heart

Leeds United head coach Thomas Christiansen.
 (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Leeds United head coach Thomas Christiansen. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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“It wasn’t right for me,” said Garry Monk in response to questions about the regime he bailed out on at Elland Road and there is, under Andrea Radrizzani, some definite clarity about the Leeds United way.

The season ahead is staked on it: the choices, the commitments and the gambles taken after control of the club passed to him.

Risk is evident at Leeds and Radrizzani’s hope will be that he has calculated it perfectly. A head coach from Cyprus, concerted recruitment from abroad and a policy of putting value for money ahead of extreme expenditure on players; the truth will out when Leeds cut loose and expose their philosophy to a division which always finds out and never fails to separate the sheep and the goats.

Leeds were a domestic unit with a domestic air last season. From Monk through the spine of his team, from the goals of Chris Wood to Kyle Bartley and Rob Green, the club revolved around a Championship core.

That spine is still present in parts, minus Monk and the imposing frame of Bartley, but Radrizzani has gone continental in recruiting a coach, and in the transfer market. Italy, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal; the list of countries Leeds have gone to this summer explains why they now employ a specific head of European recruitment as a part of the team under director of football Victor Orta.

Orta is as central to the operation as Thomas Christiansen himself, the man responsible for directing the search for players.

Leeds United's players training at the Jenbach Stadium in Austria. Pictured Ezgjan Alioski. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Leeds United's players training at the Jenbach Stadium in Austria. Pictured Ezgjan Alioski. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)

Orta left Middlesbrough under a cloud at the end of last season, blamed in part for unsuccessful signings and Boro’s Premier League demise, but Radrizzani has embraced his techniques. He was similarly keen to embrace Christiansen’s after meeting the Dane in Madrid three days before appointing him as head coach on a two-year contract.

Christiansen, while largely unknown in England, ticked many of United’s boxes: a manager who would fit into Leeds’ structure, a coach who was recently in the habit of winning trophies – albeit in a minor league – and someone who genuinely wanted the job. He fell short on the matter of prior Championship experience, a factor which led Leeds to seriously ponder the less attainable options of Jaap Stam and David Wagner, but Christiansen sold himself to Radrizzani with an extended presentation in Madrid. Orta and Angus Kinnear, United’s managing director, were no less impressed.

Christiansen spoke during his unveiling at Elland Road about the relative pressure of APOEL, the club he managed in Cyprus last season, making the point that managing a squad who are expected to sweep the board every year is not the cakewalk it might seem. Life in an expectant bubble should help him at Leeds, though on his CV only Barcelona eclipse the animal he is taking on in England and he might find that Radrizzani’s standards are as high as the crowd’s.

Seventh place in Monk’s sole year in charge was classed as a commendable finish, even after United’s collapse in the final month. Radrizzani saw it differently. “The season at the end was not good,” he told the YEP in May, on the night before Monk resigned. “We didn’t achieve. Something didn’t work so we can’t be happy just because we were bad 10 years ago.”

Seventh place in Monk’s sole year in charge was classed as a commendable finish, even after United’s collapse in the final month. Radrizzani saw it differently. “The season at the end was not good.”

Phil Hay

Ten years ago Leeds were an insolvent League One club. Even 12 months ago, they were further behind in their preparation and recruitment than they are under Christiansen. United lie far below the highest levels of expenditure in the Championship but Radrizzani has spent: more than £3m to make Pontus Jansson a permanent signing, a similar fee on Samuel Saiz and seven-figure sums on Hadi Sacko, Ezgjan Alioski and Mateusz Klich. Leeds were short-handed for a while defensively but have bulked up their choice of centre-backs by loaning Matthew Pennington from Everton. The caveat is that any pairing in that position will be hard-pressed to establish the understanding of Bartley and Jansson.

Numbers and money have not been significant problems. The question is whether the approach will work. Massimo Cellino tied himself in knots, in a sporting sense and financially, by signing players en masse from abroad in 2014 – a flurry of deals he quickly regretted – but Leeds’ current plan feels more targeted and specific.

The club held out for the signing of Saiz despite endless complications with his transfer. They held out for Alioski too and were quick in tying up the arrivals of Klich and Caleb Ekuban when the opportunity arose.

Ekuban played in Albania’s Superliga last season but was the division’s second highest scorer all the same. Saiz was rated as one of the best players in the Spanish second tier and Alioski helped take Lugano to third place in the Swiss top flight.

Andrea Radrizzani

Andrea Radrizzani

Middlesbrough made a late play for Klich’s signature as Leeds were signing him and Vurnon Anita is rated by those who followed him on Tyneside as a strong free transfer; not able enough for Newcastle United in the Premier League but an asset in the Championship.

Anita knows the division but the outcome of this season depends heavily on the transition of those who don’t. Leeds have had some wins abroad – Jansson most notably and Gaetano Berardi – but were also guilty of signing many players on long contracts who wilted in a field which looks incredibly even this season.

Confidence will start with the Championship’s richest core: Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday but Fulham should threaten and Birmingham City, under Harry Redknapp, have the potential to surprise while Wolverhampton Wanderers’ bewildering spending means that they must.

Leeds finished above four of those clubs last season and within a stone’s throw of another two. As Monk proved, there is some value left in clear and sensible ideas. Christiansen has promised to aim for at least one place better than seventh, which is essentially the benchmark Monk left behind.

New to the job, the country and the division, the likelihood of that might only become clear to him once Leeds are in the line of fire.

There is an element of intrigue about the season ahead, a touch of the unknown which adds to the theatre. The curtain rises at Bolton on Sunday.

Thomas Christiansen.

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