TThe good news for Leeds is that last season’s injury crisis means they have had plenty of practice playing without their stars. The bad news is that this time it’s permanent. With Calvin Phillips and Rafinha already on the way, Leeds suddenly, but not unpredictably, find themselves in the familiar position of a club on the rise, seeing their greatest assets stripped and in need of rebuilding. The inevitability of regularity is one of the great sorrows of the financial structures of modern football.
Phillips is 26 years old. He was born in Leeds. He is a Leeds fan. He joined the academy when he was 14. He played over 200 league games for the club. But even the most snotty Leeds fan couldn’t blame him accepting the offer from Manchester City. He will earn much more money, play under one of the greatest coaches and compete for the most prestigious prizes. Leeds, in fact, can count themselves lucky to have kept him for so long.
Rafinha, 25. He moved from Brazil to Portugal when he was 19, moving from Vitoria Guimarães to Sporting before moving to Rennes, where Leeds signed him in 2020. For him, every club was a step up the official ladder; it cannot be criticized to say that from the moment he arrived at Leeds he was looking for where he should go next. Assuming Chelsea where it ends, a clear improvement and perhaps even more important in a World Cup year as he looks to confirm his place in the Brazil side. Again, that’s just modern football: no one let anyone down or betrayed anyone.
This is the problem with clubs below the elite level. Whether you develop your own players or sign promising talent from elsewhere, eventually someone richer comes along and takes them away (what Leeds did with Rennes is certainly no different to what Chelsea and City are doing with them ; as Blackadder remarked to Baldrick, “That’s the way the world is… I’m annoyed, so I hit the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse, and finally the mouse bites you on the back.”)
Some clubs handle the transition better than others. Leeds’ owners have openly talked about Leicester as a model, buying youngsters, then developing, selling and adding to them. It’s pretty much the only way to be unless you’re one of the elite; the mess at Everton shows what can happen to clubs that don’t accept their stepping stone status but try to compete by focusing on ready-made talent that has faltered elsewhere; some experience can help, some trades should be made, but as a wholesale policy it is expensive and doomed.
But it’s brutally brutal. The rich can afford mistakes. Manchester United have done almost nothing but make mistakes over the past decade, and yet they have remained a regular fixture in the top four. Chelsea could spend £100m on Romelu Lukaku and if it doesn’t go their way package it for a measly loan fee without any real impact on their budget. Wealth offers insulation.
If a club like Leicester go for a slightly more expensive option and it goes wrong, the consequences will be severe: they may have to offload the player early, before he reaches peak value and before they have a replacement; maybe in that case they can’t afford to replace the player they were planning to sell and it will affect the following seasons.
Leeds would probably only want to go for one this summer and one next, but they should end up with around £110m in compensation. It’s an opportunity, but it’s fraught with risk. Liverpool used sale of Philippe Coutinho to finance the signings of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, thus becoming the main beneficiaries of Paris Saint-Germain Neymar’s world record signing from Barcelona. That Tottenham signed youngster Christian Eriksen as part of a splurge following the sale of Gareth Bale was scant consolation for the lack of impact of the other six signings.
Just because Liverpool signed two top-class players that worked, and Tottenham got seven that didn’t, doesn’t mean there’s any more general lesson to be learned about how to spend windfalls. Liverpool and Spurs were at different levels and at different points in their development.
Even if Leeds do find a couple of £50m talents willing to join, chances are they will leave in a year or two, putting them back in much the same position they are in now. But the priority for Leeds is clearly not only to strengthen the squad, but also to deepen it in order to alleviate the problems that plagued them amid the injury crisis last season.
Attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson and right back Rasmus Christensen have already arrived from RB Salzburg for a total fee of £41m. Aaronson was a long-term target, while Christensen spent two years at Salzburg under Jesse Marsh before the coach moved to RB Leipzig. Nothing is guaranteed when players move to clubs, but both must fit the philosophy. Spanish midfielder Marc Rocco, 25, has signed for Bayern for £10m; it may or may not work, but again it fits the pattern of a relatively cheap signing used for a similar style of play with room to develop.
Rafinha’s departure leaves an obvious deficit in attack. 21-year-old Belgian forward Charles De Quetelare has been linked with a move away from Club Brugge and, based on last season’s experience, it looks like another forward could be on the way, ideally one who can play out wide.
It will all depend on the people, but the thinking of the Leeds signing looks promising. However, no signing is ever a guaranteed success; Leeds, like other clubs at its level, was forced to take a series of gambles. And that means, through no fault of their own, they start the season in uncertainty and under pressure.