Where the blame lies for Leeds United season that sailed too dangerously close to the wind

The margins have rarely been finer than the two-goal swing that would have left Leeds United in the depths of despair, instead of the post-survival high at Brentford on Sunday.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 4:40 am
Updated Wednesday, 25th May 2022, 2:04 pm

Burnley came within a whisker of one of those goals, Wout Weghorst missing a chance to equalise against Newcastle United only by the length of his studs. It doesn’t bear thinking about the impact the 6ft 4ins targetman could have made on an already nerve-shredding afternoon had he made a slightly heavier connection with Ashley Barnes’ cross.

Leeds United came closer to the brink than anyone expected this season and, if you needed evidence of just how relieved they were, it was there in Andrea Radrizzani’s sprint across the pitch to join the celebrations, or Victor Orta sinking to his knees to embrace Raphinha.

It’s difficult to picture many Premier League owners racing the breadth of a stadium in honour of finishing 17th but no matter how bomb-proof Leeds felt thanks to their contracted wage drops, relegation would have been a disaster for a number of reasons.

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Momentum gained from that glorious promotion season and the equally impressive first crack at the top flight has all but dissipated thanks to the 2021/22 stall, yet at the very least Radrizzani’s dream of European involvement in the next few years is still remotely plausible.

Dropping into the Championship would not only have entirely wasted the fantastic position Leeds got themselves into, it would have broken the run of successive Premier League seasons needed to build a club worthy of that dream and quite possibly thrown Elland Road into disarray at every level.

The player departures would have been numerous and hurtful, the ownership picture would have been cloudy and the anger felt towards the board would have hit boiling point. Who knows if they would even have returned at the first attempt?

By surviving, Leeds gave themselves so much more control over what happens next because there will be no career-protecting mass exodus and you would think there need only be one, possibly two major player sales to help finance the recruitment that is necessary this summer to start pushing the car back up the hill.

RECRUITMENT ISSUES - Leeds United's squad wasn't sufficiently strengthened last summer, or in the January transfer window as they came close to relegation. Pic: Getty

After such a stressful season and low moments - the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa left scars like no other single event - some partying was to be expected and understood. The aim was survival and it genuinely could have eluded them, yet it did not.

But when the back slapping stopped and the table was inspected with any kind of sobriety, Leeds achieved 17th - the worst possible position of all those that allowed them to say they obtained their goal. And by no more than three points. This was a very good ending to a very bad season and, if you’re happy to take the plaudits when things go well, you have to take your lumps and learn your lessons when they don’t.

How much blame there is to hand out must be tempered by the fact that, come August, Leeds will be kicking off a third-straight season in the Premier League and their Sunday heroics have afforded them another chance to get it right.

It simply can’t go this wrong, again, or there might not be a last-day reprieve. So where did it go wrong?

As with so many relegations suffered by so many clubs, injuries, inconsistency and player form each took on a role, yet it’s difficult to see one single factor that caused more problems than the recruitment.

Bielsa’s belief that his small squad could cope with another season of his and the Premier League’s demands, along with injuries that were extreme in their frequency but maybe, at times, predictable - Kalvin Phillips, for example, was always in danger of breaking down after such a heavy workload and so little rest - proved erroneous. The squad was gossamer-thin and in need of reinforcements in both quality and number.

Leeds went into last summer admitting they wanted a central midfielder and exited the summer with the one they signed in January 2018 to show for their efforts.

Were Bielsa’s demands too ‘exacting’ to use the word Angus Kinnear chose for his January programme notes? Has there really been no midfielders in world football who could fit the bill, meet his standards and be obtained for an affordable price in all of those windows? There were options put to Bielsa in January and he evidently had his reasons for saying no to all but Brenden Aaronson, yet it never felt as if RB Salzburg were ever likely to let him go then.

The summer was the time to act, though, to preferably significantly improve the squad - something the signings of Junior Firpo and Daniel James never fully managed - or, if the board felt they and Bielsa saw things too differently on the recruitment front, use his penchant for one-year contracts as a natural fire break and, as painful as it would have been, part company. By January it was already a fire fight and it must also be said that if, with that transfer window open, the club felt their head coach’s stance on signing reinforcements was a problem, it was a strange move to wait until the end of February to pull the trigger on his removal, when a replacement could do little more than shoehorn an inherited squad into his system.

Ultimately, Bielsa was an employee of Leeds United, a link in the chain and a man to be managed. Leeds gave him a level of control and influence that many other clubs would not and it worked wonders for Leeds, for three full seasons, but he was not an all-powerful figure from whom the board took dictation. He was not the owner.

Even if it is head coaches who pay with their jobs when things go awry, the buck does not stop midway down the chain.

Between Bielsa and Radrizzani lay two other links bearing a huge weight of responsibility for the success, or otherwise, of the machine - Orta and Kinnear, and it is their job to spot problems coming down the track and protect the club accordingly. By February 27, it felt a little late in the day to be taking evasive action and, coming in the manner it did, it wounded the club and widened existing fissures between the fanbase and decision makers. Staying up might afford some vindication but not complete healing, as the lingering discontent and distrust in evidence in the fanbase shows.

Jesse Marsch himself would admit he has a huge amount of work to do to ever attain the popularity Bielsa enjoyed but the current head coach’s fingerprints are not on the building of this squad.

Simply laying this too-near brush with relegation at the feet of one individual, though, would neither be fair nor appropriate. Was the lack of recruitment a Bielsa problem, an Orta problem or an ownership investment problem? Everyone has their theories but the history books will merely record that a bare-bones Whites squad almost fell out of the Premier League. It was a Leeds United problem. So anyone and everyone who either acted or failed to act in leaving Leeds shy of the required quality and depth to make a better fist of this season has a lesson to learn and a share in the blame, just as they enjoyed a share in the credit that came in spades when times were so good.

The good news is that if those lessons are learned, times could be good again.