Jhe good news for Leeds is that last season’s injury crisis meant they trained a lot without their stars. The bad news is that this time it’s permanent. Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha are both on the way and so Leeds, suddenly but not unpredictably, find themselves in the familiar position of a club on the rise, seeing their greatest assets stripped and needing to be rebuilt. The inevitability of the pattern is one of the great sadnesses of modern football’s financial structures.
Phillips is 26 years old. He was born in Leeds. He’s a Leeds fan. He joined the academy at the age of 14. He played over 200 league games for the club. But even the most blind Leeds fan couldn’t blame him for accepting an offer from Manchester City. He will earn a lot more money, play under one of the greatest coaches of all time, and be up for the most prestigious awards. Leeds, in fact, can count themselves lucky to have been able to keep him for so long.
Raphinha is 25 years old. At 19, he made the leap from Brazil to Portugal, moving from Vitória Guimarães to Sporting before moving to Rennes, from where Leeds picked him up in 2020. For him, each club was a step forward. ; it’s not a criticism to say that from the moment he arrived in Leeds he was looking for where he could go next. Assuming Chelsea are where he ends up, it’s a clear progression and perhaps all the more important in a World Cup year as he looks to confirm his place in the Brazil squad. Again, that’s just how modern football is: no one has let anyone down or committed an act of betrayal.
This is the problem of clubs below the elite level. Whether you develop your own players or recruit promising talent from elsewhere, someone richer ends up coming and taking them away (what Leeds did to Rennes is, of course, no different from what Chelsea and City did to them). do; as Blackadder observed to Baldrick: “It’s the way of the world…I get pissed off and so I kick the cat, the cat lunges at the mouse and finally the mouse bites you on the behind.”)
Some clubs handle the transition better than others. Leeds owners have openly spoken of Leicester as a role model, buying youngsters and then developing, selling and restocking. It’s pretty much the only way to be if you’re not part of the elite; the mess at Everton shows what can happen to clubs that do not accept their stepping stone status but try to compete by focusing on ready-made talent that has failed elsewhere; some experience can help, some bargains are to be had, but as a wholesale policy it is expensive and doomed.
But it’s brutally hard. The rich can afford to make mistakes. Manchester United have made almost nothing but mistakes over the past decade and yet they remain among the top four challengers. Chelsea can spend £100million on Romelu Lukaku and, if anything goes wrong, bag him for a meager loan fee with no real impact on his budget. Wealth provides insulation.
If a club like Leicester bets on a slightly more expensive option and it goes wrong, the consequences would be serious: maybe they have to offload a player early before he reaches his maximum value and before he has a substitute lined up; maybe then they can’t afford the replacement of a player they planned to sell, and that has a ripple effect on future seasons.
Leeds would probably have preferred to move just one this summer and another the next day, but they should end up with around £110million in compensation. This represents an opportunity, but it is fraught with risk. Liverpool used the sale of Philippe Coutinho to fund the signings of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, and thus became the main beneficiary of Paris Saint-Germain’s world-record signing of Neymar from Barcelona. That Tottenham landed a young Christian Eriksen as part of their madness after selling Gareth Bale was small consolation for the lack of impact of the other six signings.
Just because Liverpool signed two top players, which worked, and Tottenham picked seven, which didn’t, doesn’t mean there’s a broader lesson to be learned. on how a windfall should be spent. Liverpool and Spurs were at different levels and at different stages of their development.
Even if Leeds could find a pair of £50m talents ready to join, there’s a good chance they’ll leave in a year or two, putting them back in much the same position they are in now. . But the priority for Leeds is surely not just to strengthen their squad, but to deepen it, to alleviate the kind of issues that plagued them amid last season’s injury crisis.
Attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson and right-back Rasmus Kristensen have already arrived from RB Salzburg for a combined fee of £41m. Aaronson was a long-term target, while Kristensen played under Jesse Marsch at Salzburg for two years before the manager moved to RB Leipzig. Nothing is guaranteed when players change clubs, but both must match the philosophy. 25-year-old Spanish midfielder Marc Roca has signed with Bayern for £10m; he may or may not work, but again he fits the model of a relatively cheap signing used for a similar style of play with room for development.
Raphinha’s departure leaves an obvious attacking void. 21-year-old Belgian striker Charles De Ketelaere has been linked with a move from Club Brugge and, after last season’s experience, it seems likely there could also be a move for another striker, ideally the one who can play loose.
It will all depend on the individuals, but the thinking behind Leeds’ signings looks promising. No signing, however, is ever a guaranteed success; Leeds have been forced, as other clubs of their stature usually are, into a series of bets. And that means that through no fault of their own, they start the season in uncertainty and under pressure.