Bottles of lager were shared around Elland Road’s offices at the end of a hectic summer transfer window and in the weeks that followed there was an eagerness to toast the recruitment carried out by Leeds United.
A new approach to the market – broader in its reach, continental in its style and consciously focused on medium-term signings – carried Leeds to the top of the Championship in September but, as results go awry and the league position dwindles, United’s scouting structure is as reliant as the club’s head coach on the confidence of owner Andrea Radrizzani.
Poor form is hanging over the head of Thomas Christiansen but not without raising concerns about the quality of his squad or begging the question of how many of the 14 first-team signings made before the August deadline would now be classed as an immediate success.
Control of recruitment at Elland Road became Victor Orta’s when the Spaniard was named as director of football following Radrizzani’s takeover of Leeds in May. Orta, who previously completed a much-criticised spell as head of recruitment at Middlesbrough, quickly created a European network of scouts and began framing up a busy summer. Three of the 14 players brought in were English. Eight played abroad last season and amongst the entire group, only goalkeeper Andy Lonergan was over the age of 30. The departures included Chris Wood and Rob Green, two crucial bones in the spine of last season’s team.
Samuel Saiz, the number 10 signed from Huesca, has been comfortably the biggest hit. Gjanni Alioski enjoyed a promising first month and Pierre-Michel Lasogga – Leeds’ loanee from Hamburg – has interspersed off-key performances with five goals and three assists. Those flashes notwithstanding, a run of seven defeats in nine games has been as unflattering for United’s squad as it has been for Christiansen.
Angus Kinnear, the club’s managing director, conceded that the strategy at Elland Road was a longer game; an attempt to create over time “a nucleus of talent which is ultimately better than anything else in the league”.
“The success of the recruitment has to be viewed through the perspective of building the club for the medium term,” Kinnear said. “Some of the signings have had an immediate impact. Some of them were always going to be for the longer term.
“I know there’s a tendency for people to judge players immediately but like all the best clubs, we’ll be buying players who we think are going to be fantastic in two or three years’ time. That’s the way we think we can sustainably attract top talent.
“It allows you to compete with clubs with parachute payments and, from our point of view, we need to do things that are smarter, cuter or more insightful than going out and trying to buy the centre-forward who scored the most goals in the league last season. That approach will continue. It’s going to be about building a long-term nucleus of talent which is ultimately better than anything else in the league.”
Orta was the subject of bad press at Middlesbrough, blamed in some quarters for Boro’s relegation last season.
Leeds’ slump has turned attention to his involvement at Elland Road and the scouting team built beneath him, but Kinnear defended Orta, predicting that the point of the strategy at Elland Road would become clear.
“I’ve been very impressed with him,” Kinnear said. “His scouting knowledge is second to none but it’s not just an individual skill. He’s built a framework here and the quality of a club’s recruitment set-up is probably the single-biggest competitive advantage you can create in British football.
“There are two options. You either wait until players are proven and then pay a lot of money for them or you find them as they’re developing. The system Victor’s put in place and the scouting talent he’s hired will definitely give Leeds a competitive advantage.
“Is it going to manifest itself in the first five months? Definitely not.
“But I do think that in two or three years, people will look back and say that what Leeds have created on the recruitment front is special.”
Kinnear stressed that Orta’s role is “broader than some people think” and stretches far beyond transfers.
He also insisted that Christiansen was happy with their respective roles and satisfied with the standard of the club’s transfer business.
“The reality is that Thomas wouldn’t have taken the position (as head coach) if he didn’t have the controls he wanted,” Kinnear said. “The pair work really well together.
“Victor heads up football administration and strategy across the whole club. It’s a much broader role than just a guy who makes signings but his role in the recruitment process is critical.
“There’s a debate about the director of football role and traditionally British football hasn’t liked the concept, but all of the top clubs have a director of football, whether he’s got that title or not.
“The days of a manager taking training in the morning, going to watch a game in the afternoon, going to a player’s house and signing him in the evening and then finding time to hire a physio as well are gone. Our organisational structure of having Thomas focused on the first-team squad is right.
“It’s a big job and it needs a support structure around it.”