From 'top end' Championship targets to European top tier internationals as Rodrigo de Paul and Joško Gvardiol emerge as Leeds United targets

Victor Orta went to the shops to buy ‘top-end’ Championship talent and came back with internationals from top-tier European leagues.

Monday, 31st August 2020, 5:20 pm
Updated Monday, 31st August 2020, 5:24 pm
WISH LIST - Rodrigo De Paul has always been on Victor Orta's list but reports in Italy suggest the Whites are 'serious' about the Udinese midfielder. Pic: Getty

The arrival of Rodrigo from Valencia and Robin Koch from SC Freiburg, coupled with news on the continent that the Whites are after Udinese midfielder Rodrigo De Paul and Dinamo Zagreb centre-half Joško Gvardiol, doesn’t so much suggest that Leeds are not in Kansas anymore but screams it from the rooftops.

How did it come to this? At what point did Leeds change tack completely and head for international waters?

The answer is simple, in a way – they didn’t.

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What happened, instead, is that the players they felt were obtainable were taken off the radar by circumstance and players who were already on the radar came into sharper focus.

Ben White was the centre-half Leeds went for, in a big way, until their way was blocked by Brighton and Hove Albion. Robin Koch, with seasons of experience in the Bundesliga and a place in the German national squad, seemed to make so much sense as a signing after that, at less than half the price of White.

They liked Saïd Benrahma of Brentford, but that interest cooled. His ultra-cool, high-definition holiday highlight reel, broadcast on social media, did him few favours in Yorkshire.

Ollie Watkins, another Bees player whose 2019/20 form made him the cream of the crop in the Championship, was indeed a real target. But when Rodrigo went from a player they felt would be out of their budget at something like €50m to a very achievable target at €30m – still a club record fee – the choice seemed very straightforward.

YOUNG GUN - Joško Gvardiol of Dinamo Zagreb would be seen as an understudy to Leeds United captain Liam Cooper, if the Whites could sign him. Pic: Getty

Watkins is a very good forward. Rodrigo is a very good Spanish international forward with Champions League goals on his CV.

That deal was one Whites fans did not see coming, simply because of the player’s profile and the sheer size of the investment it took to get him. So, still smiling with satisfaction after a Saturday spending spree, imagine their surprise when all of a sudden speculation sprung from Sky Sports’ Italian signing specialist Fabrizio Romano, that Leeds weren’t done in Europe.

The interest in 17-cap Argentina midfielder De Paul is real, although so too is the interest of a host of big European clubs.

He was on the list from the start but, like Spain’s Rodrigo, fell into the category of wishful thinking. It would take a similar, if not greater financial outlay than the deal to bring his namesake to Elland Road last week and with good reason; he’s somewhat unique in Europe.

Dan Altman, founder of football analytics platform smarterscout, told The Yorkshire Evening Post: “There aren’t any central midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues who can match Rodrigo de Paul’s style of play and his pitch coverage.

“He’s most active in the right channel, crossing midfield, but he can pop up almost anywhere. He’s an avid defender, and his attacking contribution is huge at a Premier League standard.

“De Paul was involved in about two thirds of Udinese’s most effective attacks, and three-quarters of their goals while on the pitch. He’s Argentine and has enormous output on both sides of the ball, so he seems like a great fit for Bielsa’s Leeds.”

A midfielder who specialises in progressing the ball by dribbling it or passing it and pops up almost anywhere to create and score goals would sound almost too good to be true, if Leeds didn’t already have one in Pablo Hernandez.

At 35, the magician needs an apprentice and 26-year-old De Paul has impeccable credentials and Bielsa approval.

At the other end of the pitch, aggressive 18-year-old defender Gvardiol would also fill the role of understudy, to club captain Liam Cooper. He too would be pricey, at something like €20m.

“Like Eric García at Manchester City last season, Gabriel at Arsenal in 2016/17 and Aymeric Laporte, Gvardiol does a ton of link-up passing and gets a lot of ball recoveries, but he doesn’t dribble the ball forward much yet,” said Altman. “He’s impressive for an 18-year-old, though.”

Signing just one of these two players who have long been on Orta’s radar but burst unexpectedly into the public conversation around Leeds would be impressive.

Keeping expectations in check is important, particularly for a newly promoted club. If the past week has told us anything, however, it’s that unlikely doesn’t mean impossible and wishful thinking can bear fruit.