Leeds' transfer negligence means they only have themselves to blame for relegation worries

Daniel James Leeds United 2021-22
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The Whites find themselves in the Premier League's bottom three with just three games to play after a season that has been mismanaged from the outset

Fans watching Sky Sports’ pre-match build-up ahead of Leeds United’s 2-1 loss to Arsenal on Sunday will have heard Jamie Redknapp state that the Whites would not be in a relegation battle this season were it not for crucial injuries to Patrick Bamford and Kalvin Phillips.

That assessment holds a lot of truth, but it also absolves the club of any blame for what has happened this season. 

Leeds have suffered terrible luck with injuries this season, but they have also been set up in a way which was totally incapable of coping with injuries.

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They are in the position of fighting for their Premier League lives with three games to go because they deserve to be.

The powers that be at Elland Road had Sheffield United as the perfect example of how a second season in the Premier League can go wrong.

Last season, the Blades failed to adequately improve their squad for Chris Wilder’s second go at the division, and they went down with a whimper as Wilder lost his job with relegation all-but confirmed.

Unfortunately for Leeds, their second season back in the top flight has played out very similarly to their Yorkshire rivals.

Though Leeds are fighting for their survival longer than the Blades managed, like Wilder, Marcelo Bielsa paid for their awful season with his job.

Marcelo Bielsa Leeds United GFX

Recruitment, meanwhile has been a huge part of Leeds' problems, as it was for the Bramall Lane outfit 12 months ago.

Leeds were superb in their first Premier League season for 16 years. Playing under their maverick head coach, Bielsa-ball and a brave squad delivered some phenomenal performances. 

They went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and Manchester City in the first month of the season, just missing out on a point at Anfield after giving away a late penalty and drawing 1-1 with City in a stunning game at Elland Road.

At no stage of the season did they look like going down, despite the odd heavy defeat, such as the painful 6-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford. 

However, it seems those involved in squad-building got carried away with the club's ninth-placed finish. Leeds achieved that with the majority of the first-choice XI made up of players that were promoted from the Championship, and they seemed to think they could cope in the Premier League for two seasons with the core of the squad remaining the same. 

Stalwarts from the early Bielsa seasons, Pablo Hernandez, Ezgjan Alioski and Gaetano Berardi all left in the summer, and the Whites brought in Daniel James and Junior Firpo - neither of whom have impressed - as their only senior signings in outfield positions, with director of football Victor Orta and Bielsa continuing with the Argentine’s small squad policy.

Junior Firpo Leeds United GFX

At the time, this seemed a huge risk. Leeds had not signed a midfielder since January 2018, and at that point it was unclear how Adam Forshaw would cope in the Premier League, having been injured for almost two years.

An attempt was made to loan Conor Gallagher, but the Chelsea midfielder chose to join Crystal Palace instead. Leeds also looked at Huddersfield’s Lewis O’Brien as an alternative, but between Bielsa and Orta, a decision was made that the asking price was too much for a player they did not feel would be first-choice. Instead, they gambled with the options they had. 

Considering so many of the team had played a huge proportion of the minutes available over the last few seasons, injuries should have been expected and planned for by bringing in reinforcements, and O’Brien certainly would have played a lot of minutes.

Leeds have looked light in midfield throughout the campaign, especially when Phillips was injured. Stuart Dallas was considered as an option, but has spent almost the entire season covering the full-back positions. The Ulsterman is now out for the rest of the season and beyond with a femoral fracture.

Kalvin Phillips Leeds United GFX

Undoubtedly the most damaging aspect of Leeds’ season has been the loss of Bamford for the vast majority of it. The Whites’ top goal scorer for the past two seasons, Bamford missed the opening match of pre-season at Blackburn Rovers, which saw winger Helder Costa tried as a centre forward option. 

This foreshadowed what was ahead, as Leeds have simply not had another player who could do what their number nine could, in terms of all-round centre forward play.

James, Rodrigo Moreno, Tyler Roberts and Joe Gelhardt have all had chances, but by January, Leeds knew they did not have anybody to cover Bamford.

But while not signing a striker in the summer was forgivable, not even finding a loan option in January when the season was crumbling around them was bordering on negligence.

"Our analysis indicates that many January options, requiring an eight-figure investment, would not be a material improvement on the current performances of emerging players such as [Lewis] Bate, [Leo] Hjelde and Joe Gelhardt," Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear wrote in his programme notes on January 22, with the three players mentioned having started just one league game between them since, much to the annoyance of some sections of the Leeds fanbase.

"As a board, we have always tried to be transparent with supporters in the belief that it is better if our recruitment strategy is disagreed with by some fans, rather than misunderstood by many," he added.

The decision not to strengthen in January, particularly up front, has only made things more difficult for Jesse Marsch, who came in to replace Bielsa.

Jesse Marsch Leeds United GFX

The American coach favours a fast, ‘vertical’ style of play, where a striker to occupy centre backs and link play is vital. Having no option in the squad to play this role has badly hamstrung him on a tactical level.

Additionally, while many will argue that results in pre-season do not matter, Leeds did not win a single one of their friendly matches and looked very poor in each one.

Bielsa’s side carried that form into the start of the season and never recovered.

It was clear to see that the spark was not there and that another couple of signings coming in before the transfer window closed could have helped provide the extra quality required. Instead, they went on with what they had. 

Considering Leeds and Burnley are now in a three-game shootout for survival, it is clearly still possible that the Whites might survive.

Given how difficult both sides fixtures are, it might be decided by just one of the two picking up a result, however they manage to do so.

One thing is for sure, though, Leeds played with fire with their squad-building this season. If they get burnt, they will only have themselves to blame.