In no area have Leeds United been more aggressive this season than in the reshaping of their development squad.
Of all the things defining Andrea Radrizzani’s eight months as owner, the sustained expenditure on junior players has been the most intriguing and the least understood.
There is no argument in Leeds with a chairman spending money on the club’s academy. The youth development programme at Thorp Arch, despite its capacity to generate first-team players in fair weather and foul, has struggled with underfunding in the post-Premiership years, never quite the animal the staff there wanted it to be.
The scrutiny of Radrizzani’s plan, driven by director of football Victor Orta, comes down to the players Leeds are signing: many from abroad and few of those with a significant reputation in the game. Last week Ian Harte, United’s former left-back and the agent of academy players Tyler Denton and Jack Clarke, berated the club for loading the squad with “too many foreign players not good enough.” Harte, who was himself nurtured at Thorp Arch after moving from southern Ireland in the 1990s, said United’s recruitment drive was “killing the younger players’ pathway.”
United’s transfers have not been exclusively foreign. Last month they paid six-figure fees for Leyton Orient striker Sam Dalby and Forest Green midfielder Jordan Stevens. At the same time, Pascal Struijk came from Ajax, Aapo Halme joined from joined from HJK Helsinki and Oliver Sarkic completed a permanent transfer from Benfica.
We’ve been criticised about the number of foreign players in the Under-23s and as a club we want to give priority to players coming from near the club and near Leeds. Our priority in the future is to be very strong locally.Andrea Radrizzani
The academy’s season to date has been mixed. United’s Under-18s are joint top of their league after 20 games. Leeds’ Under-23s, managed by Spanish coach Carlos Corberan, have been in the bottom half of theirs since the kick-off. Radrizzani described the Under-23 squad as “under construction” and said it had required an immediate influx of players to increase the squad size after several years of neglect and departures.
“The Under-18s are doing very well this year,” he said. “The 23s are learning. It’s under construction but it’s developing and the manager, Carlos, is very passionate about his job. He’s a talented coach.
“We’ve been criticised about the number of foreign players in the Under-23s and as a club we want to give priority to players coming from near the club and near Leeds. Our priority in the future is to be very strong locally, in this territory, but this year was year zero.
“We needed to bring in a lot of players and it was not easy to find good ones (in England). And it’s nothing bad to have a mix between a good local core and integrate them with an international addition.”
There are English clubs, of which Chelsea are the best example, who use good academy players as a revenue stream and a way of combating Financial Fair Play (FFP) limits. Radrizzani said the influx at Leeds was aimed predominantly at producing first-team players rather than earning the club future transfer fees.
“I wish to have another Kalvin Phillips, another Ronaldo (Vieira) coming up to the first-team squad. That’s what I wish every year, one or two players from the Under-23s or the Under-18s,” he said.
Radrizzani gave a pointed response to the comments made by Harte, who said after a 2-2 draw between Leeds and Birmingham City last week that “all I could hear was Spanish been spoken by players and manager.” Leeds defended themselves at the time by saying that nine members of Corberan’s 16-man squad were either British or Irish.
“We as a club give him a lot of respect and he’s always welcome in our stadium,” Radrizzani said. “We treat him with kindness and we expect that when he has something to say to help the club to improve, it’s better he comes here to my office and shares his ideas rather than do this publicly.
“It’s not the right way to help the club I think. It’s not acceptable in my opinion. He needs to decide what he wants to do.”
Radrizzani also attempted to shed light on Leeds’ recent link-up with Qatar’s Aspire Academy, the state-of-the-art and expensively-funded facility which is intended to develop the country’s up-and-coming athletes.
Aspire is run by Leeds board member Ivan Bravo, a long-time friend of Radrizzani’s, and United claimed when the tied-up was announced on January 3 that they were “joining a network which features some of the biggest and best clubs in Europe.”
The Qatari facility is used by numerous European sides for warm weather training camps and has been spoken of highly by a number of prominent personalities, including Xavi and Frank De Boer. Its actual network of controlled clubs, though, is considerably smaller, featuring Cultural Leonesa – the Spanish second division outfit where Leeds have already sent two midfielders on loan – and Belgian club Eupen. To date is has not clear what United stand to gain from their relationship with Aspire or what academy track record it actually has.
“It gives the possibility to the club, which I think is a great opportunity, to be linked to an academy which is probably the best in the world in terms of facilities and knowledge,” Radrizzani said.
“We haven’t used it much but we have an opportunity to send our injured players to recover in Aspetar, the medical sports centre of Aspire and one of the best in the world. Also we can use Aspire to send our players to play international youth tournaments, to get more experience and play against big teams.
“We have our strategy and our objective. They (Aspire) will bring eventually some exchange of know-how with our coaches and we will do the same. We will send ours there to learn and we will send our teams to play tournaments in Aspire.
“For sure we have a great history but we also need to be open minded about what happens in the world and to educate our players in an international mindset.”
Qatar’s influence in European football has never been greater and its money is driving the ambition of Paris St Germain. Radrizzani, however, insisted the Aspire connection had given neither the academy not the country influence over operations at Elland Road. “No, not at all,” he said. “We are fully autonomous and independent. There is one decision-maker.”