A summer like this at Leeds United is coming. There was never any talk of speaking too preemptively or explicitly about what is currently happening at Elland Road, but at various times since their promotion two years ago the club have spoken of the PR battle that awaits them. : the sale of family money.
They have spoken quite openly about the Leicester City model and any extensive research that finds at the heart of it a hefty transfer fee. Sell and reinvest, sell and reinvest, which, as it happens, could be precisely the story of this summer in Leeds. One big asset is leaving and another is likely to follow. You could call it the Leicester model on steroids, as Leicester’s policy has traditionally been to limit major spend to one in each window – a selling strategy with clear limits.
Whether Leeds intend to lose Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha in the same close season is doubtful, and Raphinha’s position is more opaque than Phillips’, but the fact that the club have discussed replacements for both players indicates that the stable door was unlocked. They thought another year of Phillips was possible until it turned out that Manchester City were serious about him and Phillips was serious about them. They were more expecting to lose Raphinha and the only obstacle to his progress now, given that Barcelona are relatively helpless, is someone paying the right price. Arsenal were planning to try again for him this week. Other clubs, like Chelsea, are considering it. The whole saga would die down if the market thought Phillips’ departure meant Raphinha was not for sale.
The longer these processes last, the more a club begins to reflect. City’s move for Phillips has been fairly quick, with interest in Raphinha more of a slow-burn and speculative one, but the drip effect of chatter about players leaving is gradually transforming the conversation within the City scouting department. a club from the negative impact of the loss of large assets towards the question of what they could do with the money. It’s a due diligence to analyze possible replacements, and over time, alternative options begin to appeal. If Raphinha leaves and Leeds choose striker Charles De Ketelaere from Club Brugge, leaving money left over and the possibility of bringing in another winger as well, who wins? Or more specifically, does anyone actually lose?
Transition is everywhere at Leeds and the club is completely in a world of change. They are no longer the domain of Marcelo Bielsa and the club are reshaping the squad he left behind. Phillips, the mainstay of Bielsa’s team, is about to leave. Raphinha, as good a recruit as any other from the Bielsa era, also has bidders around him. The baton passes on to other positions, such as that of right-back with the arrival of Rasmus Kristensen, and the numbers increase. The way they see it at Elland Road, Phillips and Raphinha passing could mean a total of six incoming players: Kristensen, Brenden Aaronson and Marc Roca have already signed, one midfielder, one winger and one striker to watch. It won’t be like before, but after Bielsa, nothing will be like before. Even small things like a new partnership with injury data specialists Zone7 show a shift in operational direction.
With footballers like Phillips and Raphinha, however, it’s not just about replacing their craft. There is also the question of temperament. Over the years, Leeds have eaten up players who failed to cope with the environment. Many will tell you that it can be difficult to play for Leeds – a club where expectation and an air of ruthlessness built up by long periods of underperformance eat away at confidence and performance levels. One of the best things that can be said about Phillips is that playing for Leeds didn’t seem difficult to him. His roots in the city did not weigh on him at all. He was nerveless and hard to piss off, cool and confident on the inside. Raphinha is cut from the same cloth – either able to feed off the crowd or so good that everything around her washes her back. Talent shows. The character may be less tangible. But season after season, Leeds still need it.
Raphinha was the first world-class player to come through the Elland Road door for the better part of two decades. Bielsa was a marvel and Phillips was the epitome of the fan on the pitch – the footballer the crowd saw themselves in. Losing two or three of them in a few months is a huge cultural shift, creating anxiety about the impact of those changes. People knew what they had and liked what they had. There will now be a cooling off period as Leeds paint the picture of what comes next. This window could be good or bad for them. This is the nature of the transition. But as a club they will be different regardless of the rest of the summer.
Now it all comes down to recruiting – the wisdom of it and the success of landing darts in the right areas of the board. There’s no romance in losing the Crown Jewels, but there’s no denying that without them signing new contracts, neither Phillips nor Raphinha will be worth more money than they are now. If they play their hand well, Leeds can come out of the window with more depth and more balance in their squad – two things they undoubtedly need. Phillips gets his shot and maybe, in time, Raphinha gets hers. Leeds take the silver and come out of the summer unscathed. That was the point of the Leicester model: that when done right, it worked for everyone.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)