Why Leeds United Must Take Advantage of the Final Period of the Transfer Window
In this piece, Josh Hobbs looks at Leeds United’s transfer window so far…
At the time of writing, there are only 12 days remaining in the transfer window.
The Leeds United first-team signings currently consist of Junior Firpo — who joined from Barcelona in a £13m deal — and young Norwegian goalkeeper, Kristoffer Klaesson. These two players came in to replace the departing Ezgjan Alioski and Kiko Casilla. On top of this, Jack Harrison finally signed permanently for the club after three seasons on loan.
There has been talk of further signings with a midfielder a priority. Conor Gallagher was the primary target but after he chose to move Crystal Palace instead, Leeds have moved onto Lewis O’Brien.
I have already written a full report on the merits of O’Brien but the two clubs have yet to agree on a valuation. There are some reports that this is now close but neither Phil Hay nor Graham Smyth have confirmed this and it seems as if Leeds have a clear valuation they won’t go above on the player. At the moment, it looks like what Huddersfield want is above that amount.
Leeds are also said to be ready to sign another winger. However, they will only do this if a player they like becomes available at a price point they feel is fair. The most common links are Ryan Kent of Rangers, Club Brugge’s Noa Lang and long-time target, Daniel James.
Despite the James links, there have been several reports that Manchester United are looking to loan out Amad Diallo and James himself started on the right wing against Leeds on Saturday. This suggests he is unlikely to be allowed to leave Manchester United, even after the arrival of Jadon Sancho.
According to an Athletic Q&A from Phil Hay, Victor Orta is a huge fan of Lang but Bielsa isn’t said to be as sold on the Dutch U21 international. Thus, it remains to be seen if Leeds will move for him, particularly as he’s said to have a price tag of upwards of £20m.
Ryan Kent is perhaps the most realistic option given that Rangers failed to qualify for the Champions League and Steven Gerrard himself has admitted that his club might need to sell some players to balance the books. However, their asking price is also around £20m so it looks like this would have to come down by about £5m for Leeds to come in for him.
As such, it is a possibility that Leeds could finish the transfer window with the squad they have now.
I find this highly concerning. Although the team finished ninth last season and performed fantastically, it would be a huge risk not to freshen up the squad again, given the exertions on the player’s bodies over the last few seasons.
Knowing the narratives around Leeds and Bielsa over the last few seasons, I’m very aware that many of you will be ready to dismiss this straight away. Any idea of ‘burnout’ has been dismissed by fans, the players and Bielsa himself. The team certainly didn’t look like burning out as they finished so strongly last season.
However, my concern isn’t about burnout over a single season. We’ve got enough evidence now to know that shouldn’t be an issue. My concern is that in previous seasons, Leeds have always brought in a few reinforcements each summer to freshen the squad up and help carry the load as the team looks to go again at extremely high intensity. As it stands, they haven’t done that this season. Junior is the only fresh face for the first eleven.
Below is a graphic — created by Rithwik Rajendran (@rithwikrajendra on Twitter) — which shows how Marcelo Bielsa utilised his squad last season. Those whose batteries are most drained are those which were used the most and those who featured rarely have much fuller batteries.
The first thing to mention here is that three players from this graphic have now departed. Casilla and Pablo Hernandez have both returned to Spain but neither broke 15% usage (available minutes played). Meanwhile, Alioski has also left but he was a much more important player in 20/21, featuring for almost ¾ of the available minutes.
Ian Poveda also looks to be on the way out as rumours abound of him leaving on loan after he didn’t feature in the first-team or under 23 squads in the last games. That leaves only Jamie Shackleton from last season’s squad on a green battery.
We know the club had an injury crisis at centre back last season with only Pascal Struijk — stepping up for his first full season as a senior player — remaining fit throughout. Meanwhile, Kalvin Phillips missed a number of games, particularly struggling with a shoulder issue which he aggravated at the end of the season but chose not to have surgery on so that he could play in the Euros. Leeds have struggled badly in covering for the England international.
Record signing Rodrigo managed only 44% of the minutes after missing a few games due to COVID, before struggling with a groin injury. He might have featured more but he was never established as a guaranteed starter.
Raphinha missed a handful of games injured but this was due to a bad challenge from Manchester City’s Fernandinho rather than a muscle injury.
The only players to remain fit for almost the entire season were Illan Meslier, Stuart Dallas, Luke Ayling, Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison and Tyler Roberts, as well as the aforementioned Struijk.
Bielsa likes a small squad — What’s the problem?
My biggest concern from this graphic is Ayling and Dallas both being used for almost every single available minute. They played 94 and 95% of the available minutes respectively, which would be a huge amount of football for anybody. But when you consider that Dallas played 96% of the minutes in 19/20 and Ayling 79% (due to missing the opening games of the season with an injury), you can see that these players are playing an incredible amount of football.
Of course, this is because they are key players but it seems inevitable that at some point these players are going to hit a wall physically.
Patrick Bamford and Jack Harrison are also in the danger zone after they both featured for over 80% of the minutes in 20/21 with Bamford playing 84% the season before and Harrison 92%.
Mateusz Klich featured in just 66% of the minutes in 20/21 but this isn’t because he was being given a rest. After starting every single league game for two seasons in the Championship — barring his hangover rest following the title win — the 31-year-old started the first 19 games in the Premier League. After a strong start to the season, the Polish international’s form began to tail off and he seemed to lack the intensity he’d shown in previous seasons.
Phil Hay has since said on his The Phil Hay Show podcast that Klich was carrying an injury in his hip and was playing through the pain, taking injections to keep him able to contribute.
This seems a less than ideal situation. Leeds’ depth in midfield was so scant that Klich was forced to play on despite the fact that his body was beginning to break down after several seasons of brutal work. Due to the state of the squad, the club had few options to replace him as Jamie Shackleton was given a few starts in midfield, only to pick up injuries each time.
As well as this, Pablo Hernandez’ aging body was struggling to adapt to the step up to the Premier League. He was out of action with hamstring injuries on a couple of occasions and eventually, Bielsa didn’t seem to trust him when it mattered. Of course, Adam Forshaw had been out with his hip injury for well over a year.
With Bielsa not believing any of the under 23s were ready to make the step up, this led to Stuart Dallas being moved from left-back to take on the role. One of the reasons Dallas played almost every available minute in the season was due to Bielsa’s habit of repurposing him to fix almost any injury issue. This seems likely to continue. If Dallas remains fit this season, expect him to play a similar amount of minutes.
In the end, this turned out to be an excellent move, as Dallas excelled in midfield in Leeds’ transition-heavy style, ending the season with 8 goals and winning every award going at the club’s end-of-season awards.
For many, this makes Dallas an automatic pick in midfield going forwards but if Bielsa continues to use him to cover injuries, he’ll be needed elsewhere often. We already saw this in the first game of the season as Junior Firpo wasn’t considered fit enough to start and Dallas played as left-back.
This meant Leeds begin the game with a midfield pairing of Klich and Rodrigo, which was disastrous last time they played away at Old Trafford and proved to be the case again.
Looking at Junior’s injury history above, we can expect to see him out with muscle injuries again this season.
He didn’t get any medium- or long-term injuries at Barcelona, but he also didn’t play very many minutes there. The evidence in his career so far is that when he’s played a lot of minutes, he’s also had a lot of injuries.
This will surely mean Dallas plays at left-back fairly regularly and given that Leeds haven’t signed another midfielder, it leaves Klich carrying a heavy load once again. Leeds may be banking on Forshaw finally returning as an option there and he did make the squad at Old Trafford on Saturday but this is an incredible risk given the length of his layoff.
If Dallas himself gets injured — something which seems increasingly likely given his workload over the last few seasons — then Leeds are down one of their first choice number eights and their backup left-back, with an injury-prone first-choice in that position.
This could be potentially disastrous.
This is all about dramatic isn’t it?
Well, maybe it is. However, Leed’s squad has been on a relentless march of progression for three seasons and I don’t think it’s safe to presume that this just continues.
It’s natural for players to have a drop off in the end. It might not happen this season but it will happen in the end. Leeds need to be prepared for this and I’m not convinced that this summer has been enough to avoid this.
Leeds now have Cooper, Rodrigo, Dallas, Klich all over 30. Ayling turns 30 this month and Forshaw is 30 in October.
In squad-building terms, these players are all past peak. It’s not a guarantee, but the expectation is their output will now be on the downturn. This means their ability to play high amounts of minutes will decrease and their overall level will start to drop as they struggle to match the intensity levels they previously played. In the case of Leeds players, they’ve sustained more punishment on their bodies than most, so we could see them drop at an alarming rate.
With players like Cooper, Dallas, Ayling and Klich, we are in uncharted territory. Nobody has ever played for Bielsa as long as they have so we don’t know how others have responded to as many seasons of Bielsaball as they have played. It could be possible that their superb conditioning means that they might be able to play at a high level of performance for longer than most but Klich’s downturn from last season is a worrying sign that this might not be the case.
In the Championship, Pablo Hernandez managed to look miles above the level under Bielsa, despite his multiple hamstring injuries. However, the Premier League was a different story. Given that Hernandez was an exceptional player, it doesn’t feel too big of a leap to suggest that players who have significantly less natural ability might struggle even more after their bodies hit the wall.
What about the under 23s?
As Angus Kinnear told The Square Ball, there is a hope at Leeds that several under 23s players will make a leap this season and make a contribution to the first team.
Crysencio Summerville gave himself the best opportunity he could this season with a superb pre-season. He looks set to take on the role of wildcard substitution that Ian Poveda had last season. If he can impress in that role, he may be able to play more often than the ex-Manchester City man did. I have had questions around Summerville’s physicality in the past but he looks a good bet to get a chance this season.
Cody Drameh was also exceptional in pre-season and if Ayling does begin to drop this season, he is positioned well to show that he can be the long-term successor in the role. Of course, Dallas is also used to backup right-back and Shackleton played there in pre-season, so Drameh still has players blocking his pathway. Even so, he looks to be the most natural option there if needed.
Then there are the highly-rated Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood — both are able to play as a number nine or an attacking midfielder. Gelhardt is particularly exciting and his explosiveness and strength sets him apart from others at the level. However, he hasn’t made his debut for Leeds yet, despite making the bench several times. Greenwood has made his debut, albeit in the loss to Crawley in the FA Cup.
New signing from Chelsea, Lewis Bate may well have a chance this season given that he is a midfielder comfortable playing as a pivot or as a number eight. This is a clear area of need for Leeds so if he can get up to speed in training and match the intensity levels needed then he could be an option, particularly given his excellent use of the ball which is something Leeds’ midfield is lacking. However, he may need another season to mature physically, given the demands of playing in Leeds’ midfield and the physicality of the league.
Charlie Cresswell should be mentioned as well as he is an exceptional young centre back, but with Leeds having four centre backs — as well as the possibility of shifting Ayling central — it seems his time will come in a future season if he’s to make it at Leeds.
But whilst all of these players are fantastic prospects, we have to consider the likelihood of Bielsa using them in the first team.
Much is made of Bielsa’s willingness to use youth but we’ve often seen players thrown in but then barely used. Niall Huggins was given a debut and then never seen again, as was Robbie Gotts. Olly Casey played a handful of times. Leif Davis started a couple of games in the Championship and made brief sub appearances in the Premier League and there are others who have made debuts but not been given further chances. Both Casey and Davis have also now departed.
Bielsa had opportunities at the end of last season to blood players like Drameh and Gelhardt when the pressure was off. If the idea was that they might take bigger roles this season it seems odd not to have given them a taste of Premier League action and to see how they might cope physically against elite players.
If I had to bet on it, I’d say one of those players — maximum two — will play more than 300 minutes this season. Bielsa is much more likely to shift his trusted core 14 players around than bring any of those in. In fact, the truth is that most of the players will only get a real chance if Dallas does get the injury that I fear. In which case, it will be a real sink or swim moment for whoever gets their opportunity.
So you doubt Bielsa now!?
I recognise that Bielsa has his ways and we have to take the rough with the smooth with him. He’s not called El Loco for nothing. Of course, his methods have got us to where we are and I love him and will miss him forever when he does eventually leave.
What I am doing is simply calling for some action to be taken regarding those positions which seem to be targets but it isn’t a given that Leeds are going to bring players in for.
I understand that the club needs to have values they feel are what they’d be willing to pay for certain players and they need to keep to budgets. However, I don’t believe there aren’t any players out there that can improve Leeds’ squad which fit into the budget.
If it is a case of paying £7m for Lewis O’Brien, I can’t really understand why we’d quibble about that price. He’s in the exact age range Leeds should be looking at — the pre-peak age — which would help cover for those players hitting their peaks or past their peaks and he would provide another option in a position Leeds are very light in.
When it comes to a winger, Leeds are primarily linked with options at a higher price point but it seems to me that if we don’t bring in another quality option there that we are taking a big risk. If either Raphinha or Harrison has a major lull in form or even a medium-term injury, we’re left with Summerville, who is exciting but unproven and Helder Costa.
The Portuguese winger started well last season but had a largely disappointing campaign and seems like an obvious part of the squad which could be upgraded. If Leeds have three wingers who can split the majority of minutes between them then this allows Summerville to be developed without a huge amount of pressure on him.
If Leeds do bring in these two signings — whoever they might be — then this might all look like a bit of an over-reaction but I simply want the club to look to future seasons as well as this one. We know we have some very high-quality youngsters but my concern is — when the time comes that Bielsa finally leaves — that the squad doesn’t require enormous work to be brought up to standard for any new manager.
In this morning’s press conference, Bielsa played down the chances of Leeds bringing anyone in before the end of the window.
“It’s not probable that any more signings will be made,” he said. “I’m happy with the players I can count on at the moment. It’s the same group as last season with the substitution of Firpo for Alioski.
“The young players who accompany the team have another year of experience. If we have the option to bring another player in we will do it has long as that player is able to challenge the player who already has that position.
“Signings that strengthen the team means a player has to compete with players who already have a position.”
This is now Bielsa’s fourth season at Leeds. It’s remarkable that he’s been with us for so long and I hope he continues for another season again but as always, we have to prepare for the chance that he could leave before next season.
No other coach is going to want a squad as small as Bielsa and it’s unlikely that anybody else gets the same kind of output out of players that the Argentine has taken from midtable strugglers in the Championship. It just makes sense to prepare for that moment, as much as we don’t want it to come. A couple more signings now will make that a bit easier, at least.