Leeds United: Season of failure for Championship giants

The story behind a campaign that promised so much, but delivered so little for the Elland Road club.

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(Photo credit: Lufc83)

After a 13-season exile from the Premier League which has included a three-year stay in League One, Leeds United looked destined for a long-awaited return to the top-flight 12 months ago.

The division’s top scorer, a solid backline and a team mentality that just did not know when it was beaten were the ingredients in a Garry Monk-inspired rejuvenation recipe at Elland Road. 

The play-offs were within touching distance, but an end-of-season collapse saw the Whites fall agonisingly short of their first top-six finish in the Championship since the 2005/06 campaign.

Despite the disappointment, the club had laid the foundations on which to build a serious challenge this time around. 

With only three games of the 2017/18 season remaining though, Leeds United couldn’t be much further away from a chance of promotion.

A new, false dawn

Not since the promotion-winning season of 2009/10 from League One had there been a buzz of the same magnitude around Elland Road as there was at 7:30pm on March 18, 2017. 

Leeds had just beaten promotion rivals Brighton and Hove Albion 2-0 in the evening kick-off; a Chris Wood brace sent Monk’s men up to fourth in the table, and eight points clear of the seventh-placed Fulham.

Fans dared to dream. This was on, this was happening. 

Leeds, though, won only one of their last eight, losing four in the same period. It was a rotten run in which saw them somehow surrender a tight grip on a play-off spot and finish five points adrift in seventh. 

It was an ending that prompted mass changeover the summer, with new faces showing up in all areas of the club. Leeds had hit the reset button. 

Andrea Radrizzani got things underway as he completed a full takeover of the club, following his initial purchase of a 50% stake back in January 2017. The acquisition of the other half spelled the end of the club’s era under the control of the controversial Massimo Cellino. 

Many fans saw the departure of Cellino as a long-awaited release from handcuffs, as the younger, more personable character of Radrizzani took centre stage. 

Leeds, as far as ‘bad’ owners go, have had their fair share of those whose ‘fit and proper’ status is questionable. Cellino left the club, as many before him, in a mess off the pitch. 

Not since the beginning of the fallout of the eventual relegation from the Premier League in the 2003/04 season have Leeds been financially ‘stable’, but if Radrizzani’s intentions were to win fans over quickly, he got off to a promising start.

Actions such as bringing Leeds United Ladies back under Leeds United ownership and buying back the club’s rightful ownership of home ground Elland Road led the majority fans to warm to Radrizzani quickly. 

This was the first time that the stadium had been owned by the club, albeit in a rather translucent manner, since it was relinquished back in March 2004 following the financial disarray triggered by then-owner, Peter Ridsdale.

Radrizzani was treading a different path to his predecessors, and the much-needed fresh approach had Leeds fans singing his praises.

For all the early signs of positivity, though, this season has turned out to be a disastrous one in West Yorkshire, as Leeds appear to be going backwards at a rate of knots. 

Questionable appointments

Radrizzani began his tenure with a change in the club’s set-up, namely bringing in Angus Kinnear as the new managing director, and Victor Orta as the new director of football. 

It was a shift to a style that has more success on the continent than in the UK, raising a few eyebrows among the fanbase. 

The departure of Garry Monk and his assistant Pep Clotet soon after the takeover left a question mark over the immediate future of the club. The next appointment needed to make a statement. 

Fans were glued to social media, hoping one of the many recognised names being touted would soon be confirmed. It was instead an all-too-familiar, anti-climactic, underwhelming feeling that swept across anything bearing the LUFC hashtag. 

In a move that was notoriously synonymous with the recently departed Cellino (whose reputation for obscure managerial appointments precedes him), the club announced the signing of relative-unknown Thomas Christiansen as the new head coach. 

It was news that plunged even the most optimistic of Leeds fans back into the darkness of which they had seemingly just been released from…’not again’.

Christiansen, though, made light work of silencing his doubters, as he made the best start of any Leeds manager in history, taking the Whites to the top of the league in mid-September after a 2-0 home win over Birmingham City.

The early optimism was as good as it got, though, as Leeds lost nine of their next 11 games.

Sandwiching a mini-revival was another horrific run of form that inevitably saw Christiansen’s reign come to a screeching halt. A 4-1 thumping at home at the hands of Cardiff City was the nail in the Dane’s coffin.

With the season fast slipping away, Radrizzani replaced Christiansen with Barnsley manager, Paul Heckingbottom, a man who has publicly disclosed his dislike for Leeds United. 

It has transpired to be one of the worst decisions he has made in his short tenure. 

Before joining Leeds, Heckingbottom had won only six league games out of 30 this season with a Barnsley side that was already struggling to keep its head above water. 

How numbers such as those prove a candidate worthwhile for any managerial vacancy is an absolute mystery. 

The gamble, rather unsurprisingly, hasn’t paid off, and Leeds have won only twice in his 13-game reign, with team cohesion and confidence on the floor. 

Heckingbottom’s appointment has added to the nightmare that this season has become at Leeds United, and with no light at the end of the tunnel, fingers are pointing at Radrizzani, who has undoubtedly made another mistake.

Orta in the spotlight

The abysmal form on the pitch for most of the season has brought many angry knocks on the door of Victor Orta.

Charged with the responsibility of recruitment of playing staff, Orta’s decision making has been scrutinised down to a very fine detail, the pressure compounding with every passing week as Leeds’ season toils.  

His acquisitions this year just have not been good enough. He, and the rest of the board, have got it so far wrong. 

After initially being able to hold on to top scorer Chris Wood, a £15 million bid from Burnley forced the hand of the board, and he along with academy product Charlie Taylor departed for Turf Moor. Kyle Bartley returned to Swansea City, and Rob Green left for Huddersfield Town.

Four key players in last season’s terrific ride that have not been properly replaced.

The early season glimpses of brilliance from the likes of Samuel Saiz and the confidence and attacking flair of Ezgjan Alioski are now a very distant memory. 

An endless list of players brought in by Orta over the summer have not been up to standard. Goalkeeper Felix Wiedwald has had a calamitous season in goal, Vurnon Anita has been run ragged when deployed in a defensive role, Mateusz Klich lasted only a few months before being loaned out, as did Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, whose torrid time on loan from Manchester United was finally ended.

Loan signings Matthew Pennington and Pierre-Michel Lasogga have made very little impact since arriving in the summer. Forwards Caleb Ekuban, who has been wasteful when given an opportunity, and Pawel Cibicki have been money poorly spent. 

Although still young and raw, Dutchman Jay-Roy Grot has also failed to deliver anything of any significant promise.

Of the 15 signings made in the summer, arguably only the aforementioned Saiz and Alioski have made any case for earning a place after the summer, and even then in recent times, they too have gone missing.  

January, somehow, makes for even bleaker reading for Orta. Laurens De Bock has made an awful start to his Leeds United career, Tyler Roberts arrived at the club injured and hasn’t yet featured.

The purchase of Adam Forshaw is perhaps the only positive to come from the winter window as the midfielder brought an added steel to a Leeds team severely lacking in physicality before suffering an injury.

What makes the immediate picture even worse for Leeds is the length of contracts handed to this season’s new recruits, many have been signed up to three- or four-year deals. An absolute headache.

Overall, Orta’s recruitment this season has been nothing short of abysmal, and his position at the club needs to be seriously looked at by Radrizzani if the club is to move forward.

Leaders non-existent

Leadership is a trait that this Leeds United side is severely lacking. 

This time last year, any number of individuals in the dressing room would have happily stood up to be counted and grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck. 

Kyle Bartley, Rob Green, and even to some extent Chris Wood all had no issues raising their voices, and their game, in times of need. 

These types of players have not been adequately replaced. The Championship isn’t a league for players to go hiding and hope that others pick up their slack as Leeds are so harshly finding out this season.

After it was confirmed Bartley would return to Swansea City at the end of his loan spell, attention, expectation, turned to Pontus Jansson. 

The Swede quickly became a cult hero when he arrived at Elland Road in the summer of 2016. His attitude, determination and passion quickly adored him to the fans.

This season, however, it’s been a different story. Jansson has looked a shell of his former self and is suffering from the absence of Bartley, with whom he formed such a formidable partnership last season. 

Some blame can be attributed to the club, to Orta, for failing to replace Bartley, but Jansson must also hold his hands up for his abject recent performances. It’s never a good sign when your own fans accuse you of going missing when the ‘going gets tough’.

What next?

For the fans, and for most of the players if recent performances are anything to go by, the end of the season can’t come quick enough.

He’s surely been aware for some time, but Radrizzani has an almighty task on his hands, and this summer will be a busy one at Elland Road.

The job at hand will be much bigger, tougher and longer than he expected, and the learning curve for a man whose previous football experience is limited, will be steep.

It appears Leeds United will need to start again… again. 

There is no hiding from the fact that had it not been for the early season form, Leeds United would have been in a real relegation scrap. In fact, Leeds have been so poor in 2018 that only Burton Albion post a worse record, and only by virtue of a slightly worse goal differential. 

Perhaps the most alarming thing for fans is the lack of change, at least for the positive, in the team and their performances since the arrival of Heckingbottom.

Under Christiansen, at least for the final part of his tenure, the results weren’t coming, but at least most of the players had a desire and ability to play for the shirt.

Since February and the change in management, few have seen such a weak, feeble, disinterested, poor Leeds United team. 

When Radrizzani sits down to draft up the year’s appraisals for his staff, there’ll be strong consideration over the futures of Orta and Heckingbottom. If either, or both, of whom are still at the club come the beginning of next season, the Italian will face an onslaught.

The change in the manager hasn’t done an anything to change the fortunes on the pitch, and it’s clear to see that most the playing staff are not good enough for the Championship. Some of those long-terms deals need severing, losses cut and the players moved on. 

For far too many recent seasons that Leeds fans care to remember, the club have opted to take a punt on cheaper foreign, typically Italy-based imports.

It’s a policy that needs changing, a policy that has so evidently fallen flat on its face this season.

To mount a serious challenge to get out of this league, money must be spent, and spent well. Leeds’ publicly known tight wage structure needs a huge overhaul, and a quality, proven management team needs to be drafted in.

Failing to act will surely make Leeds United relegation contenders in 2019.

Where are Leeds going wrong? Let us know in the comments section below.

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