Leeds United: Same old story for the Whites?

(Photo credit: Jake)

Few sides can rival the topsy-turvy, rollercoaster ride that Leeds United fans have been on in the last 15 years. Going from the semi-finals of the Champions League to League One in just a handful of seasons is quite the downfall, and many fans are wondering if the club will ever return to the top-flight of English football.

Garry Monk led a serious promotion charge in 2017 before the Whites returned to familiar mid-table mediocrity last season. Under new backroom control as of the beginning of the last campaign, however, the messages from the board had been encouraging.

But is the wool being pulled over the fans’ eyes and are Leeds about to embark on yet another underwhelming season?

That familiar, unfulfilling feeling

Ever since the collapse on the home straight of the 2016/17 season, Leeds fans have felt as though the chance for their side to clinch promotion back to where they feel belong isn’t far away. That was at least until the wheels came off in November of last season after then-manager Thomas Christiansen had made the best start of any that had gone before him. 

The Elland Road side went from top of the league to mid-table in a matter of two months after a rotten run of form. Christiansen - despite winning the hearts of most United fans - was shown the door, replaced by Paul Heckingbottom.

Leeds’ board had intended for the former Barnsley boss to be a stop-gap, to see the club through to the end of the season so they could hit the reset button for the umpteenth time. And Heckingbottom was dismissed shortly after the season ended as Leeds searched for yet another manager.

Marcelo Bielsa, whose services aren't cheap, was finally announced as the new head coach after much deliberation - much to the surprise of in-the-know football connoisseurs - and such an appointment must have meant one thing: A change in policy.

Owner Andrea Radrizzani’s public questioning of the player recruitment strategy and process used by Wolverhampton Wanderers last season left many a fan excited at the prospect of their club using the same model and approach. So far, though, it’s groundhog day. 

PR nightmares

The hype and belief amongst fans immediately following the announcement of the appointment of the Argentine was initially high, though has exponentially dissipated as the summer has drawn on.

Much of the frustration amongst the club’s supporters derives from the slow, laboured approach in the transfer market. Financial information of any club is naturally hard to gain, but the tiresome roundabout of rumour-link-intention-breakdown is grating the patience of the most loyal and hardcore supporters.

With the current ownership, leaks relating to interest in players has been tightened up—a stark contrast to a club who once seemed the share their intentions with every media outlet going. While this new, lockdown style approach keeps a lid on proceedings, it can, and does, understandably frustrate fans.

So far in the summer window, Leeds have only gained two loan signings. Midfielder Lewis Baker arrived at Elland Road a week ago, and the club announced the signing of Baker’s Chelsea club mate Jamal Blackman in recent days.

As far as fans are concerned, two signings in this window isn’t enough. 

Instead, Leeds United’s PR and social media team are spending more time trying to get fans to pay for pre-season matches. Owner Radrizzani appears to have other interests at heart, with regular announcements of his Eleven Sports media company gaining broadcasting rights. Good news for him, but not so good for the fans. 

More transfer frustration

Leeds’ notoriously tight wage structure keeps rearing its head, as links to players break down due to salary demands not being met. Are the board refusing the break the mould, and will it dearly cost the club?

The bulk of the grievance comes from the long, drawn-out ‘talks’ with players that the club neither get across the line, nor completely dismiss. Matej Vydra and Abel Hernandez have been heavily linked with a move, for example, but after weeks of negotiations, the scraps of information fed to fans suggest that these transfers won’t materialise.

Leeds faced a goal-scoring crisis last season, with Chris Wood leaving a hole up front, one that Kemar Roofe - last season's top scorer - couldn't replace.

Kyle Bartley, too, a fan-favourite at Elland Road two seasons ago, was also heavily touted to return to Elland Road, though West Brom have since snapped up the defender, leaving Leeds with only two recognised first-team centre-halves on their books.

What this demonstrates is that the decision-makers have put all their eggs in the wrong baskets. Baskets that one spends considerable time negotiating over, only to be let down at the final hurdle.

Leeds have made a point of trying to clear out those who weren’t up to the required standard last campaign, with lots of fringe players leaving the club, though they haven’t been replaced, which is concerning.

NFL partnerships, sports media deals and heightened season ticket sales - where are the funds in the supposed ‘reinvestment’ pot going?

Can Bielsa work with what he has?

Perhaps a decoy, perhaps the truth: Bielsa has been reported as being happy with the size of his squad. Bielsa has a history of working with a smaller number of players in his previous posts, but is ‘El Loco’ underestimating the physical nature of a Championship season?

46 games plus two cup competitions is a marathon, and if this small crop of players were to gain an injury or two, Bielsa’s options will be thin. Leeds fans, though, are adamant that more incomings are a must. And it’s hard to disagree. 

The length of the season is one sticking point, but the quality of the squad is, overall, sub-par. A world class, highly respected coach can surely only do so much, can only improve players to their own limitations.

What next for Leeds fans?

As the clock ticks down to the start of the season, the slow process is panicking supporters. A big opening day matchup with Stoke City is two weeks on Sunday, and the window is rapidly closing.  Links and interest show promise, then break down. Rinse and repeat. It’s been the story of the summer so far for Leeds’ transfer hopes.

The pain, frustration and anguish show no sign of relenting, though the tight-lipped club may not allow for good news and hope anyway, at least until a deal is done behind closed doors. 

From a fan’s perspective, though, it is painfully obvious that the previous season’s squad wasn’t up to the standard, so why can’t the club see it? Why can’t they identify a seemingly simple problem?

The board either have sheer faith in Bielsa’s ability to turn a mid-table squad into promotion challengers or the funds to bolster and strengthen the squad aren't there.

There's no middle ground, is there?

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