Leeds United's January transfer business - an exit that feels unlikely but could benefit player and Whites in long term
Leeds United won’t, but they could let Tyler Roberts go without giving up on him.
When considering what business the Whites might do in January and the potential scenario of a departure or two, Roberts is an interesting case.
For a long time now the Welshman has been producing flashes of his talent, glimpses of the very good footballer he could become.
Roberts has the ability to turn on a sixpence and leave defenders in his wake, the presence of mind and awareness to make intelligent runs off the ball into areas where he can finish, if found, the bravery to take the ball in tight areas and play forward, along with the necessary work-rate to be considered for the first team by Marcelo Bielsa.
End product is the cry of his critics, whose patience has worn thin, and not entirely without reason, it has been a struggle for him to add the final piece of the puzzle to his game and impact Leeds matches in the way an attacker needs to. He has no goals or assists.
It should be noted, though, that £25m Daniel James has no goals and just one assist and Jack Harrison has registered nothing in either category. Rodrigo has a pair of goals but no assists. End product has been a struggle generally.
It’s feasible that Roberts is one of those who has suffered from the general lack of cohesion and fluidity in the attacking play and chance creation of Bielsa’s side in the early part of this season. Rather than being the problem, it feels like Roberts, used mostly as an attacking midfielder, has been hampered by it. Yes, when teams are not creating as they should, the very best attackers still manage to make something happen, but Roberts has found himself unfairly scapegoated for his inability to make things happen.
It may be the case that one goal or one performance will open the floodgates and relieve the external pressure – oh for that spectacular volley to have gone in and not hit the bar against Watford – and it’s obvious that Bielsa has seen enough in him to believe he will get to where he needs to be.
After the Watford game the head coach said: “He still hasn’t been able to link his qualities with his performances. I, in particular, have a lot of confidence in his resources.
“I feel that he is a player who can unbalance and I hope he can evolve and take a leading role in our team. He has taken a step forward.”
Yet 188 minutes of first-team football later, there hasn’t been another obvious step forward and it’s still not entirely clear or convincing that Roberts’ future lies in attacking midfield instead of up front.
For all his talk of dealing with criticism and mental strength, it would take an iron constitution to not feel a little frustration at the lack of reward for his effort.
And while Bielsa’s patience and trust are undoubtedly helpful, it’s not unreasonable to think of other action Leeds could take to benefit the player in the short term and the club in the long term.
A January loan was briefly mooted midway through last season, but he stayed and enjoyed a run of a dozen Premier League starts.
His proximity to the first team and heavy involvement this season appear a barrier to a second half loan this time round, but the likely imminent return of Patrick Bamford, Rodrigo’s recent form, the growth of Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood’s continued prolific record for the Under-23s combine to suggest Bielsa would consider his striking options sufficient to allow Roberts out on loan.
If James or Harrison are preferred as centre forwards, then perhaps the wall has some writing on it.
That said, the options to play behind the striker are few and far between, and Roberts is likely to be needed if Rodrigo is unavailable, so it’s perhaps not the easiest of ideas to sell to Bielsa right now, unless someone else comes in.
Having handed him a new contract in the summer and given that despite a relative wealth of experience he’s still only 22, letting him go permanently would make little sense. A Championship loan, however, if not in January then in the summer, would release him out from under the scapegoating and into space in which to breathe and develop. Establishing himself as a serious threat and a regular second-tier starter would put in place a building block that injury and circumstance denied him, before going up with Leeds.
The Premier League is an unforgiving proving ground and although the Championship is still a high level, it is one at which Roberts could thrive, in a way he is not at present.
For Leeds, playing the long game does make sense – Bamford didn’t become the prolific Premier League striker we saw last season until he hit 27.
Roberts has so much time on his side to become a more complete and more potent attacker, a fact lost among the immediate needs of a small top-flight squad and the expectations of a demanding fanbase.
And a loan would not mean failure. It was the loan system that built Ben White, after all.
Leeds have to get away from this notion, fictional or otherwise, that a temporary move spells the end of a player’s time at Elland Road. Victor Orta tried to address it with his words when Ian Poveda went to Blackburn, but people look at those who have departed on loan and either see players who have not returned or players playing at a level far removed from the Premier League.
Roberts could help disprove the theory.
Beyond him, if January is to bring outgoings, a number of those out on loan could leave permanently without much in the way of surprise.
If Robin Koch comes back, Charlie Cresswell will again be down in fifth place when it comes to centre-half slots and might benefit from game time at senior level, but right now he's within touching distance of it at Leeds.
You might also look at a player like Greenwood and see cause for a loan spell – he’s comfortable in the 23s and in need of a challenge that isn’t currently presenting itself in the top flight. Jack Jenkins’ path to the senior side looks equally narrow.
Anything else, at senior level or in the crop of youngsters bolstering Bielsa’s squad, would seriously raise eyebrows. Whether or not they can afford to add in January, Leeds cannot afford to lose many.