There was much to admire about Leeds United’s endeavour in the Championship last season but Andrea Radrizzani’s assessment was brutally simple at the end of it. “Something went wrong,” he said.
It went wrong at the worst possible time, in the final eight games and at the very moment when a play-offs position was close enough to touch.
Radrizzani, who bought into Leeds in January, talked of the lack of a “winning mentality” at Elland Road despite the club recording their highest tally of home victories in England’s second division for 27 years.
The reaction since Radrizzani’s full takeover in May has been concerted: an entirely new coaching team – albeit a decision forced upon the club by Garry Monk’s resignation – an entirely new recruitment scheme and nine first-team signings with at least two more planned. The first test of the new regime comes at Bolton Wanderers on Sunday with Leeds, in the words of United managing director Angus Kinnear on Tuesday, “fully focused on promotion”.
So is head coach Thomas Christiansen setting out with a stronger squad than Monk possessed 12 months ago?
Rob Green did not miss a minute in the Championship last season, despite arriving with a trace of ring-rust after an inactive period at QPR. By the second half of the season he was arguably United’s best player and as consistent as any other goalkeeper in the division, David Stockdale included. The irony of Christiansen’s apparent intention to install new signing Felix Wiedwald as first-choice at Leeds instead is that Green could hardly have been in better form but this selection is more than a dilemma for Christiansen than it was for Monk. This time last year, Marco Silvestri – now with Hellas Verona after leaving Elland Road a fortnight ago – had been sent home from pre-season amid concerns about his attitude and was under pressure in any case after two mixed seasons as number one. Silvestri’s game never seemed to suit the Championship and while Wiedwald is new to the league, he has ample Bundesliga experience behind him and offers credible competition to Green. It will nonetheless be hard on Green, and difficult to imagine him sitting tight at Leeds beyond the end of the transfer window, if the season starts with him on the bench.
The most significant losses at Elland Road, or perhaps the only significant losses, have come in this area of the squad. United had no way of preventing Kyle Bartley’s return to Swansea City after his season-long loan finished in May and bridges between Charlie Taylor – worth a good three or four assists every year – and Leeds were too badly burned for anyone to halt his exit last month. Leeds have earned nicely from Taylor’s switch to Burnley, pulling in around £6m, but the club’s options at left-back start and stop with a right-sided firebrand in Gaetano Berardi and a youngster in Tyler Denton who was sporadically involved in pre-season. Vurnon Anita is versatile enough to cover there but was used more often at right-back by Newcastle United. At centre-back, meanwhile, Bartley’s exit left a hole. Leeds have recruited Matthew Pennington on a season-long loan from Everton, a deal which Hull City attempted to do themselves, and the 22-year-old is an astute capture but he has never completed a full season above League One level and the absence of Pontus Jansson through suspension this weekend makes Leeds feel light in that position. No surprise, then, that another central defender is being targeted.
Leeds have so many midfielders that Christiansen might spend more time contemplating who to leave out than who to include. The range of players will probably mean that someone like Toumani Diagouraga fails to earn a squad number. A fit Mateusz Klich might help to resolve the constant rotation seen in the centre of midfield last season – chopping and changing which implied that Monk was forever unsure of his best combination – and Samuel Saiz’s arrival from Huesca eases the pressure on Pablo Hernandez to run the show at number 10. Hernandez’s quality is still there but the intensity of the Championship caught up on him after Christmas, much as Monk persisted with him. In a line of three behind Chris Wood, Christiansen can also pick from Kemar Roofe, Gianni Alioski, Hadi Sacko and Stuart Dallas – one player who has particularly impressed United’s coaching staff this summer. Set against the loss of former loanees Mo Barrow and Alfonso Pedraza in May, Leeds should be at least as dangerous and, helped by Alioski, might carry more pace.
Chris Wood was the only regular source of goals in 2016-17 so maintaining United’s existing strength up front meant, quite simply, retaining him. There is time left in the transfer window for offers to arrive but Leeds have not felt any great pressure over Wood’s future yet and it will take an offer in excess of £15m for the club to give the courtesy of a serious reply. Signing Caleb Ekuban was something of a gamble after a good year on loan in Albania but he is quick and relatively strong and offers a fresh alternative to Souleymane Doukara and Marcus Antonsson, neither of whom saw too much of pre-season. Another striker is wanted and would be welcome.