Rewind the clock to mid-September and you’ll find Leeds United at the summit of England’s second-tier after a 2-0 win at home to Birmingham City.
Newly appointed manager Thomas Christiansen had made the best start of any Leeds manager in history and Leeds were unbeaten in all competitions; the painful memories of narrowly missing out on the playoffs last campaign quickly faded away.
Back in the present, the Elland Road-based side find themselves back in all-too-familiar mid-table territory after an alarmingly poor run of form and fans are pointing fingers at the recruitment of director of football, Victor Orta.
Change in structure
Leeds’ boardroom overhaul began at the end of last season, as Andrea Radrizzani completed his complete takeover of the club after buying the remaining share of compatriot Massimo Cellino. Radrizzani brought in Angus Kinnear as the club’s chief executive and Orta as the new director of football.
Mass changes ensued on the field, too, as manager Garry Monk and his backroom team left the club. Top scorer Chris Wood and left-back Charlie Taylor headed to Burnley, admired captain Kyle Bartley returned to Swansea and relative unknown Thomas Christiansen was appointed as the club’s new manager.
If there was any doubt about the new regime, it was quickly put to bed as Christiansen made the best start to the season in the club’s history as manager, taking Leeds to the top of the league after seven games unbeaten.
Off a cliff
In recent times though, Leeds’ form has been alarming. One win since Boxing Day has seen the West Yorkshire club slip towards an all-too-familiar mid-table finish.
Despite his bright start, Christiansen was relieved of his duties as the club appointed ex-Barnsley boss Paul Heckingbottom in an effort to turn the season around.
While most seemed to agree that perhaps Christiansen wasn’t perhaps the man for the job, the appointment of Heckingbottom wasn’t met with an overwhelming response, either.
With only one win in his opening six matches, and performances desperately lacking, the season appears to have well and truly unravelled as fans appear ready to write it off already.
Is the set-up damaging Leeds?
The director of football/head coach system is definitely the modern-game approach, primarily on the continent, but within the English game, the set-up isn’t exactly adored.
The method doesn’t allow for clarity on who pulls the strings at the club on the pitch. In Leeds’ case serious questions are being raised about who really runs the team – even down to the level of picking the matchday squad.
Many fans feel that this ‘grey area’ limits the pool of willing candidates for the role of head coach.
Lots of managers aren’t willing to work within this set-up. Behind closed doors, no one really knows who has the say – and final decision – in transfers and recruitment.
At Elland Road, it is believed Heckingbottom was appointed on these grounds: he’s happy to work in this system and supports how the club is run. Could the club have attracted a higher calibre boss with a different set-up in place…? Maybe.
Victor Orta’s fault?
With all of this in mind, the failings of the team’s on-field performance have to be questioned. Changing the manager (at least at this point) doesn’t seem to have worked, so perhaps the blame lies at player recruitment?
It would be foolish to assume that only a single person has the say on which players are brought into a club, but in Leeds United’s case, things seem to suggest exactly that.
Orta previously held the same position at Middlesbrough, and fans there weren’t overly impressed with his performance, either. He was sacked by owner Steve Gibson following the club’s relegation from the Premier League last season.
Current performances on the field, not to mention the results, are rather damaging and Leeds are regularly outclassed, outfought and outshone all over the pitch.
Same old, same old
The argument that Orta’s recruitment was the reason the Christiansen’s reign was cut short is resurfacing, as Heckingbottom can’t seem to arrest this current slide, either.
Social media surrounding Leeds United recently has thrown serious questions at the current playing staff and the fact they are ‘clearly not up to standard’. If the rumoured internal policies are true, then Orta must hold his hands up.
Leeds have handed contracts to a staggering 21 players so far this season across the first team and under-23 side, as well players that were already at the club. Fan favourite Pontus Jansson and winger Hadi Sacko were both handed improved, longer deals.
Most recruitment of the new faces though has come from the continent. The likes of Samuel Saiz, Ezgjan Alioski and Caleb Ekuban all came to Leeds from various European leagues. Only five of the 21 have come from English sides.
The vast majority of these signings, however, haven’t yet worked out, and the pressure is mounting on Orta as the team continues to toil.
Few bright sparks, many dull glows
Trial-and-error seems to be the method used by Orta when he identifies targets. Scouring mainland Europe for a player that might bear fruit perhaps isn’t the best approach.
As fans will testify, only a tiny percentage of players brought in at Leeds have paid off and had a positive impact.
Samuel Saiz carries much of the responsibility in an attacking sense and has been the focal point for much of the season. Without him, it’s argued that Leeds would be in even deeper trouble than they are.
The January acquisition of midfielder Adam Forshaw from Middlesbrough has been a welcome addition to an area of the pitch that Leeds are so desperately lacking.
Ezgjan Alioski is another who, on his day, can be a bright light but his consistency has come into question – much of the same can be said for Matthew Pennington, Laurens De Bock and Pierre-Michel Lasogga.
Conversely, there are many names that at the end of this season that could easily be thrown on the discard pile. Felix Wiedwald, Vurnon Anita, Caleb Ekuban, Jay-Roy Grot and Pawel Cibicki are just a few names on a seemingly endless list of players who are just not good enough – all brought in by Orta.
The recruitment is just the beginning of the issue. Orta has also been questioned over handing ‘ridiculous’-length contracts to these new, untested and unproven recruits.
Many of those brought in over the summer were handed three- or four-year deals, and it’s a move that is looking increasingly to have backfired and could be a chain around the ankles of Leeds for a few more years to come.
A large percentage of the wage budget is being eaten up by these players, and with the collective performances this season, the club will struggle move many of them on in the summer.
So what options does that leave? The club could take the hit on severance costs and release the players in question, thus admitting the failure of recruitment of Orta.
They could loan them out, and try to gather wage contributions, or – perhaps the least attractive alternative for Leeds fans – hold on to them and accept the low quality.
The alarming situation though is that, if it wasn’t for the impressive run at the beginning of the season, Leeds could well be facing a relegation scrap – a huge backward step considering the potential to build on last season’s agonising end.
Carrying the same squad into next season could seriously limit their chances of survival.
Ultimately, the fingers being pointed at Orta are looking increasingly warranted. Player recruitment hasn’t been good enough and Leeds look a shell of their last-season selves, severely lacking in quality in all areas of the pitch. Given his poor record at Middlesbrough, his appointment in the first place has to be looked at, too.
Whether Orta remains part of the Leeds set-up in the near future remains to be seen, but if he does, Leeds fans may well have to brace themselves for another few underwhelming seasons.
Leeds fans, are you happy with Victor Orta and his recruitment policy? What has to change at Leeds to sort this issue out?
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