Why Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds United must put loan lessons into practice this summer
Birmingham City’s penalty for breaching profit and sustainability rules was a kick in the teeth for them but a tacit warning for the rest of the Championship, reminding every club that the rules are inflexible and those enforcing them do have teeth.
Birmingham were the only team to exceed the maximum loss of £39million permitted over three years by the EFL’s Financial Fair Play model and received a nine-point deduction in March as a result but the risk of a sanction more severe than a fine will influence the way in which the Championship uses the transfer market this summer.
There are teams in the division with income inflated by Premier League parachute payments but, as a whole, the constraints of the profit and sustainability structure will deter many clubs from committing to large transfer fees.
Leeds United, a team who do not benefit from parachute money, are headed for the loan market and will see other sides follow them into a highly competitive field of recruitment.
Temporary signings have always been common in the Championship but Monday’s play-off final between Aston Villa and Derby County was a demonstration of the way in which managers can profit from landing loanees who would be unaffordable and, in many cases, unavailable on a permanent basis: Tammy Abraham, Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe on one side; Mason Mount, Harry Wilson and Fikayo Tomori on the other.
Leeds picked poorly with some of their own loan signings this season but are optimistic that better judgement and the campaign behind them will allow it to work for them over the next 12 months.
The club and their chairman, Andrea Radrizzani, are making no secret of the fact that finances are tight at Elland Road, or that transfer business will be restrained.
Marcelo Bielsa is looking for four new players, with a specific focus on improving his choice of wingers, but FFP is a concern and Birmingham’s points deduction did not go unnoticed by the club’s board. United’s losses for the current financial year are likely to come in at more than £15m, almost half the EFL’s three-year limit.
Last summer Leeds took Jamal Blackman, Izzy Brown and Lewis Baker from Chelsea, none of whom made a splash.
Bielsa squeezed more out of Jack Harrison and will try to bring him back from Manchester City once Harrison finishes his summer holiday but the loanee who got away was Harvey Barnes, so close to joining in July that Leeds had him at Thorp Arch and were picking a squad number for him when he changed his mind and signed for West Bromwich Albion instead.
West Brom were closer geographically to Leicester City, Barnes’ parent club, but Leeds suspected he was drawn to The Hawthorns by the expectation that Albion would challenge more seriously for promotion.
In the end, while West Brom lost Barnes in January and lost touch with the top two after that, Leeds were on the verge of automatic promotion with four games to play.
Bielsa agreed to stay as head coach on Tuesday, despite his side’s eventual defeat in the play-offs, and there is a feeling at Elland Road that a strong campaign in the Championship and the retention of Bielsa will give United the pulling power they need.
Finances will play a part regardless, and perhaps more than ever in a division where loan signings make young and expensive talent attainable. When Derby signed Wilson from Liverpool last summer, they were said to have paid a loan fee of £3m.
Leeds liked the look of the winger but were not willing to go so high in the bidding.
Brown, Blackman and Baker made two league starts between them but the total cost of United’s loan deals came in at £4m, including wages. Leeds’ outlay on loans is likely to increase.
The club’s ability to raise that figure will depend, in part, on who they can remove from the wage bill.
United sent numerous players out on loan this season, many of them surplus to requirements, and increasingly see surplus footballers with no tangible future at the club as a drain on funds and an extra burden when it comes to meeting FFP limits.
Loans have become a way of distinguishing between those who fit under Bielsa and those who don’t. None of Leeds’ most promising Under-23s were made available. Bielsa and the academy took the stance that their development would be best served by keeping them close.
Anyone who failed to feature in his plans could go.
There has always been, in the strategy surrounding Bielsa, an attempt to look beyond today and even beyond his own tenure but recruitment at Leeds this summer will be for the here and now, in search of signatures which promise to end 16 years in the EFL.
United are no strangers to the loan market and have tried their luck in it many times since the Premier League spat them out.
In Bielsa’s second year, they will be more important than ever.