The purpose of the contractual talks which Leeds United entered into en masse this season was to create what the business world calls a ‘no-excuses culture’.
Leeds valued the players they were signing up but the contracts issued were, in theory, designed to give their squad a sense of security. With years in the bank it could not have been said that the club were failing to make them feel wanted.
That was true of the players who moved to Elland Road in both transfer windows and true of the existing players who Leeds approached to discuss contract extensions.
In almost every case it was United’s decision to open negotiations and increase the wages of some who were already committed. Pontus Jansson took a five-year contract, three months after signing, up to 2020. Six others were secured until 2021. It represented an unparalleled vote of confidence from a club with a history of failing to guard their better assets.
The investment was consistent but not at all cheap and it is plain to see how the wage bill at Elland Road has risen by more than £7m during Andrea Radrizzani’s first year as owner. Liam Cooper, as an example, had been in and out of United’s starting line-up since his transfer from Chesterfield in 2014, but when Leeds finalised improved terms with him in August, he was club captain and a first-choice centre-back under Thomas Christiansen.
Like others, he had the right to a wage which competed with their higher earners.
Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Eunan O’Kane were equally experienced, and two of them full internationals. All were coming off the back of a season in which Leeds should have qualified for the the play-offs.
Leeds deduced that some meaningful reward would at least maintain the same level of performance, but eight months on Radrizzani finds himself questioning the calibre of his squad and hinting that certain players could be shown the door once this season ends. The temptation to cull might be in his head, but the practical reality of reorganising the dressing room is more complicated at a club where all but four players are under contract to 2020 or beyond.
One of those, Pablo Hernandez, is a free agent this summer but has done enough in the past 12 months to seek an extension. He and Leeds are yet to reach an advanced stage of discussions.
Two others, Luke Murphy and Marcus Antonsson, are on loan elsewhere, and the fourth, second-choice goalkeeper Andy Lonergan, was given permission by Leeds to discuss a move to Sunderland in January.
Beyond that small clutch, United possess a squad with a long-term base: 10 first-team players tied down to 2020, 12 on the books until 2021 and four, including Jansson, contracted for the season beyond. Radrizzani has maintained an upper weekly wage limit of £15,000 but the squad size at Leeds and the various extensions have pushed the total wage bill over £20m, much closer to United’s last recored turnover of £30.1m.
Radrizzani admitted last month that the club cannot afford to push the cost of salaries any higher. “For Leeds, we achieve already the top of our budget,” he told the YEP last month. “We should actually cut some for the next year.”
A more probable strategy when the summer transfer window arrives is a reduction of the size of the squad at Leeds, but a near-identical budget, potentially allowing United to up the wage they can offer to new signings. Finances in the Championship have created an environment where a top salary of £15,000-a-week sends the better domestic players elsewhere and Leeds’ attempt to uncover bargains on the continent last summer was their way of compensating for the confines of their own transfer pot. There are already noises from Elland Road suggesting the existing policy will change in the next window, in response to a campaign which began failing at Christmas.
Leeds currently maintain a squad of around 30 senior players, including those who are out on loan. Twenty-six have played in the Championship this season. Radrizzani prefers the idea of a 20-man pool, supplemented by the best of Leeds’ crop of Under-23 players. There was an air of Leeds signing players to excess at both first-team and academy level, although the big influx of Under-23s was largely down to the development squad having little more than a group of 11 players last June. After a mediocre start, the Under-23s have climbed their league with a run of two defeats in 10 games.
“My idea for the squad is 20 players plus four or six coming from the youth,” Radrizzani said. “This year we had a different situation because we overloaded the club both in the first team and in Under-23s.
“Now we will have to select more and see who deserves to stay; build more quality and be more competitive.”
That missing quality and a stronger competitive edge can only come from the transfer market and the signings Leeds complete before the next transfer window shuts. Victor Orta, their scrutinised director of football, remains at the heart of Elland Road’s scouting department and has avoided any specific criticism from Radrizzani, but the catch-all message from Radrizzani, as he butchered Leeds’ results and performance this week, was that the plan for his first season as owner has come up short. The question of who pays for that, beyond the sacking of Christiansen last month, is still to be answered.
The current contractual situation at Leeds United:
Season-long loans ending this summer: Matthew Pennington, Pierre-Michel Lasogga.
2018: Pablo Hernandez.
2019: Andy Lonergan, Luke Murphy, Marcus Antonsson.
2020: Felix Wiedwald, Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Gaetano Berardi, Kemar Roofe, Vurnon Anita, Stuart Dallas, Hadi Sacko, Tyler Denton, Mateusz Klich, Lewie Coyle.
2021: Luke Ayling, Liam Cooper, Gjanni Alioski, Eunan O’Kane, Kalvin Phillips, Ronaldo Vieira, Conor Shaughnessy, Jay-Roy Grot, Samuel Saiz, Pawel Cibicki, Caleb Ekuban, Ouasim Bouy.
2022: Pontus Jansson, Laurens De Bock, Adam Forshaw, Tyler Roberts, Yosuke Ideguchi.