Leeds United face giant transfer window with key lesson they cannot afford to ignore

Even if Leeds United stay up comfortably come May, this season’s lesson must be learned.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 24th March 2022, 7:16 am

Those two victories before the international break were huge for Leeds and oh so timely, given the depths of despair plumbed in the aftermath of the Aston Villa defeat.

Six points, three of which were as wholly unexpected as they were welcome, allowed the entire club to relax a little at the end of an increasingly tense, fraught and emotional period.

Beating Norwich City was vital but overcoming Wolves put Leeds in bonus territory, ahead of where they and their relegation rivals might have expected them to be on the cusp of the fortnight’s pause.

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

With that win, Leeds moved into a position to be able to say another two will probably do it and that much is not beyond the capabilities of this squad, not when you consider the qualities Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips will bring.

For too much of this season, those qualities have been missed too severely and therein lies the problem, one that must form a learning experience for the Elland Road decision makers.

Injuries can and will strike every club and Leeds would be revisiting Don Revie’s ‘curse of Elland Road’ theory were they to have another season quite like this one but, when you run with such a small squad, there will always be an inherent risk.

Marcelo Bielsa wanted it that way - he preferred to work with a sufficiency rather than a surfeit and the tight-knit culture that bred at Thorp Arch was instrumental in earning promotion to the Premier League.

SUMMER REBUILD - Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch will need a beefed up squad to avoid another season like this one. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

There were injury problems in the first season back in the top flight that could have proved costly, but Bielsa managed to find solutions from within, shuffling players like Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas around to plug gaps.

CEO Angus Kinnear voiced the club’s expectation that the club would get more out of the summer 2020 signings only for Robin Koch and Diego Llorente to experience further interruptions. When key players like Patrick Bamford, Cooper and Phillips were ruled out it became clear that what Leeds were dealing with was a crisis of an even more extreme and relentless nature than anything seen in the previous campaign. And this time it was costly.

Having to rely so heavily on Under-23s to come in and plug gaps in times of peril, rather than blooding them steadily in advantageous scenarios and in a controlled manner, made it far harder for Bielsa to put his finger on solutions at the second time of asking.

It wasn’t so much that any of the youngsters let the club down - far from it. Joe Gelhardt is now a first-team player, while Charlie Cresswell, Leo Hjelde and Crysencio Summerville have all shown genuine promise for the future. They just couldn’t be expected to come in and protect Leeds from the results that turned the season into such a struggle.

In certain games, a look to the respective benches showed proven, experienced top-flight operators in the opposition ranks and untested youngsters making up the Leeds replacements.

Director of football Victor Orta admitted this week, speaking at Training Ground Guru’s scouting and recruitment webinar, that there is a risk in such a strategy, while appearing to reaffirm the club’s commitment to an 18-man senior squad, bolstered by four Under-23s. Developing players for the future must remain part of the strategy at Leeds because it makes such good sense, financially as much as anything else. Finding a teenage Pascal Struijk, a free signing no less, and turning him into a Premier League defender is terrific business.Creating Cresswells from the local grassroots talent pool helps with sustainability in a rich man’s division. Phillips, one of the best examples of home-grown talent, would now cost the club far more than £50m to buy.

Giving kids the chance to prove themselves in the Premier League is and always will be important for Leeds, but it would be a surprise were the club not to beef up the squad for next season, Jesse Marsch’s first full campaign, given the 2021/22 Elland Road experience. It would be a surprise if Orta did not seek to add at least a handful of first-team players this summer while retaining the vast majority of the current playing staff, some of whom will naturally transition to a squad role so that injured players can be replaced by proven talent as well as a smattering of up and coming youngsters. Options and strength in depth are key when injuries crop up.

It would make little sense to sign a midfielder like Brendan Aaronson and cast Matuesz Klich aside, when the early indications of the Marsch era are that he's exactly the kind of player who could thrive in this new narrow system. Klich is a player who links play well in tight spaces, he runs all day and if his running and intensity are channeled in a less hectic pressing process he will provide energy and nuisance factor, either as a starter or a substitute. Leeds do need to move on from the squad that Bielsa inherited but they do not need to leave them behind, they can form the framework of a new squad, ensuring the culture that has served the club so well at Thorp Arch continues as new faces are integrated and a new regime gets underway.

That is what hindsight now suggests should have taken place to a much greater extent last summer. Instead, Gjanni Alioski, Barry Douglas and Leif Davis were allowed to leave and only Junior Firpo came in and there is a case to be made that Leeds got weaker instead of stronger at left-back.

Building players for the future is undoubtedly a resource Leeds cannot neglect, but nor can they neglect the here and now, as this brush with relegation shows.

If Marsch is to be the man to evolve Leeds from Bielsa’s era, he will need a squad that represents an evolution, not just in quality but in depth. It needs to grow. A place just outside Europe’s top 20 in the ‘Money League’ shows just how big Leeds are and how much better things could get, if they get it right in the next few windows.

To risk another season like this one would be to risk devolution and an undoing of the incredible work that brought Leeds out of the miry clay and into a form befitting their status and potential. The big club with the little squad has a giant summer ahead.