WHY JANUARY NEEDS TO BE A GOOD MONTH FOR LEEDS - Right in the Gary Kellys 21/12/21
By Matt Brown-Bolton
After three of our toughest games of the season so far the need for recruits gets ever more pressing. Freak injuries to Charlie Cresswell, and illness striking at short notice left Leeds bereft of depth yet again against Arsenal. That adds to already bare cupboard shelves in Midfield and up front. Fortunately, the January transfer window is close…
What makes a good transfer window? It of course depends on your needs as a team. Just been promoted – add some real quality, move out players no longer at the level needed. In a relegation battle? You’re going to need to add some steel to the squad, but doing nothing is probably not the smartest move.
Leeds have steered a very `flat’ transfer policy under Bielsa on the face of it, he likes a small squad augmented by youth players, and since coming to the Premier league last season on the whole that’s worked. Bielsa has though been most transformative in who has left. It’s a brave manager who wouldn’t have kept options in the squad like Berardi, Hernandez or talented kids like Robbie Gotts or Ian Poveda. Bielsa is that brave manager.
His first season in charge of course was particularly brutal in 2019 you saw Kemar Roofe, Jack Clarke, Hadi Sacko, Samuel Saiz, Jay Roy Grot, Pawel Cibicki, Laurens De Bock, Eunan O Kane, Caleb Ekuban, Vurnon Anita, Bailey Peacock Farrell and a host of promising youngsters including Lewie Coyle Conor Shaughnessy and Paudie O Connor all leave. Permanent transfers in? Barry Douglas, Helder Costa, Ian Poveda, Stuart McInstry and Liam McCarron. The other main business that year? Loans in for Jack Harrison, Ilan Meslier and Ben White.
This was the most transformative stage of the process about three years ago and the model has since then not really changed. We’ve continued to invest in the youth team, and added few members to that same first team group – which even then contained Ayling, Cooper, Struijk, Phillips, Forshaw, Klich, Dallas, Alioski, Bamford and Roberts. You’d have to say he spotted the core of that team quickly and for the most part that’s been a good call.
The youth players on whom we are leaning, Gelhardt, Greenwood, Drameh, Summerville, Shackleton, Cresswell are testament too to a strong recruitment policy around youth. In the cases of Cresswell and Shackleton, fully home grown.
Only it isn’t working apparently now.
The injuries Leeds have had have been on a seismic scale. Could even Man City survive ten first teamers out and not be disjointed? Well probably, but even in all their wealth they would be dented in terms of performance. Do the same to a Newcastle or Aston Villa the result you could argue would be even worse than our current predicament.
As supporters we all have our views on this of course and shipping 7 goals on Tuesday and four on Saturday hurt us all emotionally, but we have of course been lower than this. Defeated by Yeovil, Gillingham, Colchester, Doncaster, they arguably hurt more. Its been a long road in context. This transfer window has a different edge to it though…
Who can second guess what’s going on in Bielsa’s mind?
As he stared into the horizon at final whistle on Tuesday, and at the floor on Saturday barely acknowledging the players leaving the field you could clearly see this was not what he had envisaged. A perfectionist, he had seen his model crumble under the rigours of injuries, pressure from some of the greatest players in the world’s most competitive league. Not out, but certainly down right now.
There are now almost certainly going to be additions in January and if not we will see the U18s on the bench more regularly, Lewis Bate, Nohan Kenneh and Archie Gray were there on Saturday the latter 15 years old. Next up? Kris Moore, Max Dean? Joe Gelhardt will be a seasoned campaigner with four appearances under his belt. Can they really be expected to withstand the likes of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane In a week’s time? Or be engaged in must win relegation battles at Burnley against their dogs of war? The answer is surely not but given timings they probably will, as we add Dan James and Jack Harrison to an injury list including Bamford, Cooper, Phillips, Cresswell, Struijk, Rodrigo, Shackleton and the suspended Firpo – frankly you can’t keep up.
Bielsa will pitch himself and his sides against anyone, but he is surely now wondering whether an extra £2m for Lewis O’Brien wouldn’t have been a better idea in July. He will now face a compressed January window with Newcastle scrambling for survival (spending freely) and doubtless Norwich, Southampton, Everton and Aston Villa doing the same.
January transfer windows on the whole have not been a source of joy for Leeds United. The collapse of the Dan James transfer, Jean Kevin Augustin, Jay Roy Grot, Jimmy Kebe, you could go on, and you can see why there is such an aversion to the Panic Buys Warehouse.
But there are good stories too in recent times, Pablo Hernandez was made a permanent transfer in January, as was Tyler Roberts and of course Adam Forshaw who was a key member of the squad almost immediately afterward. The temptation of course is to try and soldier on with your knowns – rather than bag a group of unknowns. Bielsa famously needing at least 1-2 months to bed most players into his way of working and to his required fitness levels.
Where would we be looking?
It has to be up front and in central midfield. To use Bielsa’s favourite term – we are `unbalanced’ in those areas.
With Bamford out there is no real like for like available, Rodrigo has not been prolific there, nor has the improving Tyler Roberts, and neither are really deployed as strikers, the only other out and out striker in our squad is of course Joe Gelhardt. He may well end up our salvation but this is an awful lot to ask of him. We’ve needed a second striker within our squad and even our backs up are falling fast to injury and soon to suspension, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some like Brereton-Diaz approached from Blackburn (who seems to be being mentioned more and more). That would seem in line with Bielsa’s type of signing, a young player at 22 with good fitness levels and international experience to boot – speaking Spanish really won’t hurt either with our boss.
It’s of course more likely on past indications that Victor Orta may well be looking to the European leagues and most of us won’t have heard of the striker. The question really here is do we need someone who can adapt to English Football and a possible relegation battle, that being the case the Blackburn striker might well be a preferred option. He would certainly be a good long term purchase given his age, international pedigree and prolific scoring rate so far this season.
Central Midfield is yet another area where we regularly seem to be running out of defensive cover. With Phillips out until at least February our options ran out rapidly having signed no cover in this area in the summer.
Ross Barkley is the name most frequently linked in the media and as per Brereton-Diaz knows his way round the English game, even having played on loan on our hallowed turf during Neil Warnock’s time in charge. He’s of course closely followed by Lewis O’Brien the Huddersfield midfielder we so painstakingly courted through the summer, presumably hoping to get for a knockdown fee. That of course didn’t happen in true Leeds United style and we now may need to pay over £10m for.
The links for Nahitan Nandez have also re-emerged with Cagliari interested in selling their midfield lynchpin, but again this may simply be clutching at straws. The most recent rumour leads us to Weston McKennie the US International playing UCL football at Juventus, so things are perhaps hotting up.
Plenty of other names are increasingly being linked too though, and on a more attacking footing John Swift at Reading is the kind of versatile midfielder that would appeal to Bielsa, his price tag is also likely to be more appealing than Barkley or Nandez.
Results like last Saturday’s against Chelsea could tempt some boards into sitting tight but Leeds looked beyond vulnerable on Tuesday and again on Saturday, and a couple more pastings will come at a huge cost in terms of self-belief and motivation – not to mention our now hideous goal difference.
They lacked leadership and cohesion on the field of play against Man City and Arsenal and while we can all be armchair experts and pull tactics to pieces. Our right back berth saw Martinelli tying up debutant Cody Drameh in headache inducing knots, and Granit Xhaka stamping his authority on a lightweight midfield of Klich and Forshaw, the gulf in quality was egregious to say the least, and there are literally no options to fix that – would Lewis Bate or Archie Gray have fared better?
Sure, he would’ve met his match in Phillips, and Coops and Cresswell would’ve brought some sanity to the backline – but they’re all not around until February. By then the damage might be too much to turn around.
Given those gaps It looks like it’s time to make those changes. The sense that a January transfer purchase is a bad idea and always a panic buy has to be re-appraised, we buy a player in January on the same basis we would in July, they fit in they do a job – and yes ideally they add to the squad – realistically though – there isn’t much of a squad left and when you start to think about the size of that – you’re staring into the mid distance just like Bielsa on Tuesday night.