Leeds United's innovation is attracting investment but let's not expect Neymar - Daniel Chapman
Daniel Chapman has co-edited Leeds United fanzine and podcast The Square Ball since 2011, taking it through this season’s 30th anniversary, and seven nominations for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award, winning twice. He’s the author of a new history book about the club, ‘100 Years of Leeds United, 1919-2019’, and is on Twitter as MoscowhiteTSB.
Last week’s phrase that pays was ‘Emulate Leicester City’.
Leeds United did more than that.
They took on their future selves and beat them 3-1.
So what now? Don’t emulate Leicester, after all?
Concentrate hard on emulating Everton, until the points are in the bag, then move on to copying Crystal Palace?
Probably stick with Leicester, I reckon.
Since coming to Leeds, Andrea Radrizzani has flitted from the Wolves model, to Brighton, now Leicester, and with good reason: they all had something we wanted.
Wolves had the Championship squad fit for the Premier League: check. Brighton had the comeback from play-off disappointment: check.
Leicester are now the aim, for their fringe-elite status, ready to arrive late to the Big Six planning parties and drink them under the table.
They have a Premier League title and, if Leeds could put a checkmark next to one of those, that would be lovely.
That’s all on the pitch, though. Last week’s announcement of new investment from 49ers Enterprises was about what will happen off it.
Or might happen. Fans immediately asked, ‘So what now?’, and the answer through necessity was, ‘Lots of stuff, but later, but it’ll be good, like Leicester’.
With a sigh, we went back to our phones, scrolling Twitter for updates on Rodrigo De Paul.
The adjustment of ownerships and Paraag Marathe’s promotion to vice-president is the start of something, but fans like endings.
We won’t know what any of last week meant until plans for the new training ground are confirmed, until visualisations of a new West Stand are revealed, until we’re ordering hot-dogs from an app in the Cheese Wedge.
But we can infer what Leeds will not be doing.
The alternative prospect of investment from Paris Saint-Germain’s owners Qatar Sports Investments offered tantalising hopes of instant action.
But working with the 49ers rules out PSG’s method of giving vast sums of money to Neymar and hoping for the best.
For better or worse, Marathe’s group do not seem interested in short-cut galactico strategies, where the association through ownership with glamorous players is as soothing to rich egos as winning trophies.
United’s new investors have different ideas.
Popping up with Marathe were Chad Hurley, a co-founder of YouTube, and Nick Swinmurn, a co-founder of Zappos.com, both investors in San Francisco basketball club Golden State Warriors.
Another name is Mark Wan, part of a separate investment vehicle being led by Marathe to find and fund a fitness tech company to emulate Peloton.
An experienced investor in the sport and fitness industry, financial filings describe Wan as a co-owner of the 49ers, Boston Celtics in the NBA, Team Liquid in esports, and Leeds United.
The tangle of backgrounds, co-ownerships and partnerships is complex: for one thing, Leeds’ esports partner is Ninjas in Pyjamas, a rival of Team Liquid.
But the investors seem to have a few things in common.
Their expertise is tech, their passion is sport, and their commodity is intellectual property.
Somebody with Mark Wan’s background seems less likely to be seduced by owning Mbappe than by developing innovative tech solutions to fitness monitoring applicable across his portfolio of franchises.
The Wikipedia version of Chad Hurley’s history gives him credit for designing YouTube’s tagging interface, that links videos together and feeds relevant content to viewers.
It’s not hard to imagine him with Victor Orta, overhauling United’s scouting database, discovering marginal but crucial competitive advantages through, if I’m reading their personalities correctly, all-night bouts of drinking and screaming.
It’s not tactics, it’s tech, and it’s an approach that has worked for Liverpool, whose director of research, Ian Graham, is a doctor of theoretical physics, in charge of a similarly qualified match analysis team.
There is risk involved in selling ownership privileges to enthusiastic tech-focused drunk-tweeters with an outsider’s understanding of northern English soccer, whose investments feel partially driven by a desire, when they watch the Premier League on television, to literally feel invested.
“I just get to watch the matches and tweet just like you!” is how Hurley explained his role to one fan at the weekend.
That could get boring if Leeds start losing, and a bored investor is a dangerous one.
But there’s risk involved in any approach.
There is no model in football with a guaranteed emulation factor for success.
What model, after all, would predict Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling and Liam Cooper as integral players for a rising Premier League club?
A playful one, I think, which is an underrated factor in Marcelo Bielsa’s strategy.
His career has been about enjoying the attempt.
Like a caffeine fuelled coder working through the night, Bielsa is never happier than when developing lifehacks to watch tapes of two games at once.
United wouldn’t have new investors if it wasn’t for Bielsa’s passionate innovation, and those are words they like to use.
Last week Hurley tweeted that, “Investing your time and money into something doesn’t work unless you’re excited about it.”
Never mind Neymar: the first sign of Leeds United’s future could be a flatshare above a shop in Wetherby.
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Thank you Laura Collins