The Radrizzani Era: A Retrospective — Part I. The Managers

In this piece— the first article in a three-article series — Calum Archibald looks back over the Andrea Radrizzani era to assess the logics behind his appointment of managers…

Andrea Radrizzani’s involvement at Leeds United has spanned three-and-a-half years so far. Now that the club has sealed promotion to the Premier League, it’s time to ask an important question: what is Radrizzani’s legacy at Leeds United?

In this series, we will explore different aspects of the club and Radrizzani’s impact, assessing where he’s gone right, where he may have erred and what the future may hold.

The series will be split into three distinct categories, comprising of three articles;

  1. The managers
  2. The players
  3. The infrastructure, commercial and financial aspect of the club

In each area, we’ll look to determine the underlying logics of the decisions made to see if there is any internal coherence to the choices made.

We’ll begin by browsing through the managerial history at Elland Road since Andrea Radrizzani arrived.

The Background

To understand Andrea Radrizzani’s managerial appointments, we must look back to the summer of 2016.

At that point in time, Massimo Cellino was the owner of the club but it was painfully obvious that he’d grown tired of funding the club, of the battles with the EFL, Sky TV and even himself. As the club toiled to a 13th-place finish under the stewardship of Steve Evans, following Uwe Rosler’s sacking in the autumn, the Italian was already looking for an out.

It was around this time that Andrea Radrizzani was first made aware of Leeds United and a potential opportunity to complete a takeover of the club by Kenny Dalglish (for reasons that are still unclear).

In May 2016, Cellino was acquitted of tax evasion in Italy. Elsewhere, he was under an FA investigation over football agent rules relating to Ross McCormack’s move to Fulham in 2014 which would see him banned for 18 months and fined £250,000 in December 2016. This was later reduced to 12 months and £100,000 on appeal.

In the wake of these scandals, he announced his intentions to move on, stating “If I could turn back time and you ask whether I would come to this club, I would say never.” Cellino previously admitted that he’d had constant enquiries about purchasing the club but that he’d never given them consideration until he became fatigued with running the club. This perfect storm of events allowed Andrea Radrizzani to first make contact with Cellino in August 2016, beginning protracted discussions about purchasing the club.

Radrizzani is believed to have had an impact on the running of the club from early on, convincing Cellino to stick with Garry Monk when he considered sacking him in September and encouraging the club to push on with loan signings in January 2017 when he officially purchased 50 percent of the club. As time went by, Cellino slowly withdrew into the background and changed his focus, citing a desire to purchase a club in Italy.

The Cellino model — if there was one — was similar to the one adopted by Radrizzani in his first summer in charge: he looked to Europe — Italy in particular — to find value in the transfer market, believing the English market to be overinflated. Elsewhere, Cellino’s policy was generally that the club’s overarching strategy should be defined by him and that the Head Coach was expendable.

Initially, Radrizzani followed the same ideology, setting an overall strategy and finding a coach to fit that, albeit without quite the same level of manager churn. The idea of looking for value in the European transfer market also appealed to Radrizzani but he looked to target two or three higher value players, spending seven-figure sums on Samu Saiz, Mateusz Klich and Gjanni Alioski, who all appeared to be good-value acquisitions.

Looking to diversify the chain of command in his first full season at the club, Radrizzani appointed Victor Orta as Director of Football and Angus Kinnear as Managing Director. Orta’s primary roles would be in recruitment, the retention of players, and liaising with the Head Coach. Kinnear was brought in to manage the financial and commercial side of the club, having joined from West Ham. He had previously worked at Arsenal in a similar capacity, overseeing two large scale stadium moves and accumulating a wealth of experience in top-level football administration.

To understand how Radrizzani has evolved on the coaching front, we must begin with Garry Monk, the incumbent coach when he completed his takeover.

Garry Monk

In the summer of 2016, Garry Monk was appointed as manager and several players, including Pablo Hernandez, Rob Green, Luke Ayling and Pontus Jansson were signed.

After a poor start to the season, Cellino’s manager-eating reputation threatened to come into effect once again but Monk managed to eek results out through a combination of a solid defence and the contributions of Chris Wood, who scored 30 goals in a career-defining season for the Kiwi forward.

At the end of the 2016/17 season, with Leeds having finished 7th, missing out on the play-offs, the general mood of the city was for Monk to be given a new contract to push on after the most promising season in six years. This was Radrizzani’s first major decision.

In hindsight, it was clear that there was a rift between him and Monk: a manager who likes to have control over all elements of the clubs that he works at. Radrizzani was keen to employ a Head Coach to work in his new structure, having already brought in Managing Director Angus Kinnear and Director of Football Victor Orta, who had joined the club after a mixed spell at Middlesbrough.

Monk made the move the other way, leaving for Middlesbrough for a short-lived spell in Teesside.

Thomas Christiansen

In the summer of 2017, Leeds invited applications for the Head Coach role, eventually appointing Thomas Christiansen. The appointment came as a surprise to most. Christiansen’s managerial experience consisted of a four-year spell in Cyprus with AEK Larnaca and, subsequently, APOEL Nicosia.

There was a logic to this decision, though: Christiansen seemed to fit the profile that the club were looking for. He was a young coach who had a decent amount of experience but who was happy to work within the structure at Leeds. His intention was to play progressive football and he was evidently a diligent and studious coach.

It was evident that the club wanted a new approach: to modernise the entire structure to align with a more European model and devise a method of recruitment similar to the way that Brentford scout and sign players to fit in with their footballing ideology. This approach saw the club focus on maximising the value from various European leagues with the likes of Gjanni Alioski, Felix Weidwald, Caleb Ekuban, Samu Saiz and Mateusz Klich signed from across mainland Europe.

Things started incredibly well for Christiansen. He picked up five wins and two draws from his opening seven Championship games and Leeds were soon sitting top of the league, much to everyone’s excitement. Of course, reality bit when Leeds suffered a 3–1 defeat at Cardiff in late September in a match that was a watershed moment for the club. Mateusz Klich made a mistake in the game, losing the ball leading to a Cardiff goal. It would be his last appearance under Christiansen and his last appearance for Leeds in the season before heading to FC Utrecht on loan (he made just five starts that year).

That game, Liam Cooper was also sent off in first-half stoppage time after clocking up two yellow cards in less than 10 minutes. Leeds had suffered a defeat two games prior away at Millwall and, after the match, Cooper had said it ‘hit the players hard’, admitting that they ‘never really recovered’. These comments sound overblown at first glance but there is weight behind them: this was the first time that Christiansen had seen his style challenged by a direct side.

While the enigmatic Saiz blew hot and cold after a blistering start, the real issue was that Christiansen had begun to lose faith in Wiedwald, the goalkeeper who was brought in to facilitate the progressive, passing-out-from-the-back style that he was attempting to implement. After a number of particularly egregious mistakes, Wiedwald spent time in and out of the side, being replaced in the starting line-up by Andy Lonergan: a perfectly able deputy but without the skill set to play out from the back.

At this point, Christiansen began to abandon his identity and results began to unravel. Leeds lost the defensive solidity that had defined their previous season. But perhaps this was understandable with a scattergun transfer policy and a coach who was new to the league.

From here on in, Radrizzani made a number of mistakes. His first was insisting that the squad was a top-six squad. Performances had tailed off post-Christmas but Radrizzani doubled down on his position rather than accepting that he had made mistakes. Eventually, the blame was laid squarely at Thomas Christiansen’s door.

The perceived wisdom is often that a new manager or coach should be given two seasons to build a project. David Wagner at Huddersfield, Daniel Farke at Norwich and Chris Hughton at Brighton have variously been held up as prime examples. However, this is obviously not a foolproof approach. It requires the coach to have the requisite ability to stamp their style onto a squad and for the environment to be right for this to hold. Lee Johnson at Bristol City perhaps proves that point.

But ripping up the playbook and starting again after eight months felt all too familiar for Leeds United, who had now seen 13 permanent managers in the 14 years since relegation from the Premier League. To emphasise just how radical this approach is, if you count 13 managers back from relegation from the Premier League, it takes you to Brian Clough’s 44-day spell in charge in 1974.

Paul Heckingbottom

If there was a logical, analytical approach to the appointment of Christiansen, the appointment of Paul Heckingbottom felt like the complete opposite. Heckingbottom had guided Barnsley to promotion from League One before finishing mid-table in the Championship with a side that had slowly been picked apart by the time he left. He had previously coached in Barnsley’s development squad and had cultivated a reputation as a coach who was keen to develop young players.

The issues were clear from the beginning. Barnsley fans seemed pleased that Heckingbottom had gone. Not only were the club receiving £500,000 in compensation, but there were also rumours that he was about to be sacked anyway because of Barnsley’s underperformance that season.

Heckingbottom won two of his first 13 games in charge of Leeds United and his overall record was four wins, four draws and eight defeats in 16 games. Christiansen’s progressive style of football had disappeared and, just weeks after joining, Heckingbottom was a dead man walking. This has to go down as one of the poorest managerial appointments that Leeds United have ever made. In fact, remove the Cellino era from consideration, and it makes the top five.

The decision around Christiansen can be forgiven because you could see the idea even if the execution didn’t come off. Nobody could see the point in Heckingbottom, though, who was faced with the ignominy of trudging to Myanmar with a skeleton squad in a bizarre post-season tour that drew entirely warranted criticism from mainstream media.

We will explore the Myanmar tour in greater detail later in this series. Safe to say that it was poorly judged and another case in which Radrizzani seemed to double down on what was evidently a mistake and a bad decision.

In truth, it’s hard to say anything positive about this appointment. The move away from the initial logic of the Christiansen appointment was disappointing and the fact that Radrizzani had gone cold on Heckingbottom very quickly made this feel like a season wasted with shades of Massimo Cellino starting to creep back into the minds of the fan base.

The aftermath and a change in the model

Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta and Angus Kinnear knew that they’d made mistakes in 2017/18. The coaching appointments simply didn’t work and Leeds finished in 13th place, six places lower than the previous season.

At this point, the Italian asked serious questions of himself: if it had gone so wrong, how could he get it right? With Leeds under budget constraints due to a combination of the EFL’s Profit and Sustainability (P&S) rules and an increased wage budget, Radrizzani wanted to maximise their utility by hiring a coach who could improve their current playing squad.

This is where the value of Victor Orta showed. He’d stayed at Leeds despite interest from other clubs in Europe and he’d stayed despite many people questioning his ability and his impact with many transfers failing to live up to expectations. In a meeting about plans for the next season, Radrizzani asked Orta who he would hire if he could bring anyone to Leeds.

Radrizzani was keen on a high profile Head Coach, and at that time, Leeds were linked with Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte, and Roberto Martinez. Orta’s answer, however, would change the course of Leeds United’s history and the perception of Radrizzani’s ownership immeasurably.

The answer was Marcelo Bielsa.

Marcelo Bielsa and a change of culture

Victor Orta had been in awe of Marcelo Bielsa since the 2002 World Cup when Bielsa was Argentina Head Coach and Orta was a journalist. The Spaniard had attempted to bring him to Sevilla and Zenit St Petersburg during his time at both clubs.

The idea of bringing Bielsa to Leeds seemed ridiculous. But Bielsa was intrigued. After an initial phone call, Bielsa began researching Leeds United and had watched seven matches by the time they spoke again.

Unbelievably, Bielsa bought into the project and became Leeds United Head Coach. Unsurprisingly, the world’s media stood up and took notice. This signified a stylistic change on and off the pitch that would transform the club. It also precipitated a change in the club’s model to align with Bielsa’s requirements.

Leeds made a small number of key signings, bringing in Patrick Bamford and Barry Douglas in for significant fees, while Jack Harrison, Izzy Brown, Lewis Baker and Jamal Blackman joined on loan. To balance these signings, several players left: Ronaldo Vieira being the most notable.

Bielsa had watched every single Leeds United game from the previous season by the time he arrived in Wetherby (as well as most the rest of the Championship fixtures). He organised players into three groups;

  • Definitely staying
  • Definitely leaving
  • The maybe group

The final group was the most important. Mateusz Klich was notably in this group and went on to play in 92 consecutive games under Bielsa, a run being halted by what can only be described as an extreme hangover.

If there were any doubts about how Bielsa would work at Leeds United, the first season put them firmly to bed. The team came out of the blocks at a rate of knots and were engaged in the challenge for promotion from the first few weeks.

Bielsa was consistently box office: through the infamous spygate incident, Frank Lampard’s consistent schoolboy complaining to the head teacher act and the presentation that followed, and through his FIFA fairplay award-winning act of awarding a goal to Aston Villa following a controversial Klich goal. In the end, though, the season ended badly: a late season collapse led to a late play-off semi-final collapse and Leeds found themselves back in the Championship for another season.

What became of the nearly men?

After the crushing end to the 2018/19 season, many expected Marcelo Bielsa to walk away. He didn’t.

Once again, he asked the club to match his requirements. He had several key transfer targets he required but he knew that the club were so close to promotion. At the end of the season, he had sat down in a meeting with Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear and given a presentation on where mistakes had been made in the previous season. From this point onward, the club began to aim for automatic promotion in 2020.

This accelerated an important moment in Radrizzani’s time at Leeds United. Marcelo Bielsa had grown tired of Pontus Jansson. The previous season, Swedish defender had returned late from the World Cup in 2018, missing the early part of Bielsa’s pre-season. As a result, he didn’t start a game until Berardi was injured in late August.

In the Aston Villa game, Jansson attempted to stop Albert Adomah from walking the ball in despite direct orders from Bielsa to do so and the compliance of every other Leeds player. He was also outspoken, often performatively showy and Bielsa felt he was becoming a disruption in the squad.

The final straw for Bielsa came when Jansson was asked to return from international duty with Sweden for the start of pre-season in June 2019. He’d actively rallied against this and encouraged Stuart Dallas and Bailey Peacock-Farrell to do the same. They declined. Jansson had to go.

This put Radrizzani in a difficult spot. Jansson had to leave but everyone knew this and nobody in the Premier League was interested. The only credible offer came from Brentford but £5.5 million didn’t represent good value for a player who had received eight-figure offers during his time at the club. But he had to go and Leeds couldn’t risk no further offers coming in before the season started.

Jansson’s departure left a hole in the squad. A youngster from Brighton, Ben White, was brought in on loan and was expected to add competition at centre back. During pre-season, however, Bielsa had decided White was going to be first choice with Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi would provide back-up. White had been scouted by Orta since he’d played against Leeds in Newport County’s win over Leeds.

Few fans knew that much about White until he started against Bristol City on the opening day of the 19/20 season. Few fans will have forgotten about him since. White became a generational talent under the tutelage of Bielsa. In fact, he became so good that Leeds are still struggling to convince Brighton to let him go, despite an offer in the region of £25 million.

After another breakneck start, Leeds wobbled during the post-Christmas period, going on a run of two wins in 11 games. Even those two games were chaotic: a 5–4 win against Birmingham and a 3–2 win over Millwall after being 2–0 down at half-time.

Bielsa recognised that the squad needed something, and after a disheartening 2–0 defeat at Nottingham Forest that left Leeds’ position in the top two looking precarious, he dispensed with the usual analytics. The luck didn’t seem to be falling for Leeds and fear had crept in that a repeat of 2018/19 was on the cards. Bielsa gave a speech about what they were doing right and why they needed to trust the process.

The response? Five wins in a row without conceding a goal.

As the country went into lockdown, the season became uncertain. Eventually, it resumed and Leeds won seven, drew one and lost one of their final nine games to return to the Premier League after 16 years.

Where are we at now?

The appointment of Marcelo Bielsa was undoubtedly a masterstroke and Andrea Radrizzani deserves credit for that, and for matching Bielsa’s ambitions and requirements.

The culture at Leeds has changed significantly as the entire club and even the wider city have bought into Bielsa. It’s hard not to buy into one of the most enigmatic, enthralling and exciting managers in the world: who plays scinitllating football with an obvious ideology and identity; who is guided by morals and a sense of responsibility towards the fans.

Bielsa himself seems to have fallen in love with Leeds, seeing similarities between Rosario and Newell’s Old Boys, his beloved first club. It’s for this reason that he appears to have connected with Leeds United in a way that perhaps wasn’t always the case at his previous clubs, despite the levels of success he’s experienced.

With Bielsa’s help, Radrizzani achieved his goal for Leeds United, gaining promotion three years ahead of schedule in a five-year plan that Kinnear later admitted they had already abandoned.

But a final question remains: how much of the recent success of Leeds United can be ascribed to Andrea Radrizzani when they seem to be directly linked to Marcelo Bielsa?

Yes, Radrizzani explored the potential of hiring a high profile coach. But the playing squad — despite the club’s insistence — was not top-six quality. We’ll explore this more in the ‘players’ section in part two of this series but Bielsa vastly improved the playing squad, and while Radrizzani’s appointment of him is undoubtedly astute, the more cynical amongst us might wonder whether Bielsa has covered some of the failings of Radrizzani’s time at the club.

Through trial and error, Radrizzani designed a model that he was happy with. Orta and Kinnear formed his team and together they made all of the decisions. However, once Bielsa arrived, everything changed. They have effectively handed Bielsa the keys to the club and allowed him complete autonomy on his vision.

That’s understandable given the calibre of manager he is and given the success he has brought. Perhaps a stricter adherence to the tripartite approach would alienate Bielsa. There’s a fine line to tread between running the club and being an overbearing owner. But the danger now is that Radrizzani, Orta and Kinnear’s roles have been nullified. Orta seems more Head of Recruitment than Director of Football now with Bielsa dictating the transfer policy.

The club now find themselves in a precarious position, possibly afraid to do anything to upset Bielsa, a position which could be to their own detriment. Bielsa is a coach who demands complete faith and he’s got that in abundance from his players, the fans and from the executive team at Leeds United.

And that is why the biggest test of where Leeds United are at will come once Marcelo Bielsa leaves the club. With Orta unable to manage the squad and with Bielsa wanting to keep the squad small, the day Bielsa leaves will be the moment to see how far the club has really come. If we are sleep-walking towards a post-Wenger or post-Ferguson reckoning, the club could end up going backward as a result of this approach to the manager.

The old adage in football is that a draw doesn’t look bad if you win the next game but if you lose, it suddenly becomes a much worse result. If you apply that logic to managers, then Bielsa’s appointment almost exonerates the previous managerial decisions. But if that win swiftly turns to a loss after Bielsa’s departure, then Leeds fans might want to reassess the Radrizzani era.

But none of us want to think about that now. Until that day, we will remain happy to have experienced this moment in Leeds United’s history.

You can follow Calum Archibald on Twitter @calumarchie.

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