Leeds United and the next step: why better recruitment will be essential
Having picked up a long-awaited first win of the season before the international break, Leeds fans would have expected their side to kick on, starting with their trip to Southampton on Saturday. Instead, they put in a performance that was completely out of character, failed to have a shot on target, lost 1-0 and are now 17th in the table.
Leeds went to St Mary’s without some of the players who helped them achieve an outstanding top-half finish in their first season back in the Premier League. The good news is that, even though Luke Ayling will be out for another month with a knee injury, Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford should be back in time for their league match against Wolves on Saturday or the trip to Arsenal in the League Cup next Tuesday.
Ayling, Phillips and Bamford played important roles in the club’s promotion and they remain pivotal to the team’s success in the Premier League under Marcelo Bielsa. The way that they – and Illan Meslier, Liam Cooper, Stuart Dallas and Jack Harrison – have taken to top-flight football has been extremely impressive. However, the club’s recruitment in that time has been less so.
That is, of course, with the exception of Raphinha, the most important absentee at St Mary’s. The winger has dazzled since his £17m arrival from Rennes last October and has now been recognised on the biggest stage of all. The 24-year-old made his Brazil debut in the international break and sparkled. He came on as a substitute against Venezuela, set up two goals and won a penalty as Brazil came from behind to win 3-1. And then, in his first start, he scored two goals as Brazil beat Uruguay 4-1. It would not be a surprise if he were a regular starter for the Seleção at the World Cup next year.
Leeds looked toothless without him at the weekend. They mustered just three shots against Southampton, none of which were on target – and that was against a side that had not won a game all season. It was a worrying preview of what life might look like if Raphinha leaves next year. Leeds are not in the financial position to turn down a big offer. So, if they cash in on the Brazilian – on whom they could make a profit in excess of £50m – they must spend the money more wisely than they have since returning to the top flight.
Most of their recent signings have been disappointing. Robin Koch and Diego Llorente have both had a torrid time with injuries since joining the club last year, meaning neither have been able to consistently prove their worth. Rodrigo, the club’s £30m record signing, has been underwhelming to say the least – in his 37 games for Leeds he has only scored seven goals, none of which have come this season. And this summer’s arrivals, Junior Firpo and Daniel James, are yet to make a serious impact.
All in all, there is a real lack of strength in depth in the Leeds squad. Raphinha would be a big loss if he were to leave, but a big-money sale can help a club to address their lack of depth. Aston Villa were forced to do just that in the summer following Jack Grealish’s £100m move to Manchester City. Leeds may have to follow suit. Liverpool are said to admire Raphinha and, if he can maintain his electric start to international football, there will be plenty of clubs from beyond the Premier League lining up with offers.
Leeds need to add more quality in the middle and the top end of the pitch. Relying on Bamford to remain fit and in form is a risk. They also need some better cover for Phillips. The England midfielder has missed 12 games in the Premier League since the start of last season and Leeds have lost nine of them.
Leeds’ problems are not just about personnel. Opponents are adopting different tactics against Leeds this season to negate their strengths. There has also been a trend of teams allowing Leeds more of the ball and, in turn, they do not have to endure the intense press for which Bielsa’s side are renowned. Leeds are averaging 58.5% possession but they are being found wanting in possession when it comes to breaking teams down.
Finding that precise pass through a compact defence was something Pablo Hernández was charged with doing so often in the Championship and Leeds have never really replaced his guile. They have gone from boasting the sixth highest xG in the Premier League last season to ranking 17th this time around – in line with their standing in the table. Their intensity when not in possession has also dropped off a little, with 26.7 tackles and interceptions per game combined down from last season’s 30.9. Meanwhile, Leeds have conceded the most shots in the entire division, at 17 per game.
Their dip in performance so far this season can be attributed in part to temporary absences, but the concern will be what happens if those absences are made permanent. Prizing Phillips from his boyhood club may take some doing but offers will surely come in for a player who has proven instrumental not only for Leeds but for England.
Strip the best players from any side and, guess what, they are worse off. However, the drop-off in quality in the Leeds team is stark when Phillips and Raphinha are not playing. Both should be back for the visit of Wolves, which is a huge cause for optimism. With both available, the team is stable – and stability is exactly what Leeds have lacked for years. Making sure they are equipped to cope without their first-choice players will be key to improving their position in the table. Improving their recruitment is paramount – especially if Phillips or Raphinha go.