Bielsa’s cosy jumper and Big Sam destroys Alderaan - the Leeds United 2022/23 season review

A look back at Leeds United’s doomed Premier League campaign after Sam Allardyce failed to save them on the final day. Where did it all go wrong, and why?
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If there’s one person we should feel sorry for, after Leeds United’s dismal 4-1 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur saw them sink back into the Championship, it’s Georginio Rutter. The 21-year-old Frenchman, trudging round the pitch on the mandatory ‘lap of appreciation’, threw his shirt to a fan – only to have it thrown right back at him. It lay there on the pitch, untouched and unwanted, a sad metaphor for a season where Leeds sleepwalked into a relegation that could have been avoided.

Was it Rutter’s fault that he was bought at exorbitant cost in January? Was it the young striker’s fault that Leeds somehow spent the better part of £25m on a forward with two goals to his name in the Bundesliga season, as if he was likely to be the man who saved them? Not really, but the finger of blame is being pointed almost everywhere at Elland Road after the post-Bielsa period devolved into a mess of half-baked strategies that never resembled a coherent plan on or off the pitch.

Marsching down the road to nowhere

Where should the finger be pointed, really? Not at Sam Allardyce, particularly – panic-appointing a faded managerial force was a symptom, not a cause. Pinning it on him would be like blaming Han Solo for the destruction of Alderaan. He arrived too late to achieve anything, and didn’t.

You can’t put it on any of the individual players, either, few of whom were especially disastrous on their own, even if previous standouts failed to live up to their former standards. You can blame Jesse Marsch, to a degree, because he proved to be more good vibes and an impressive way with a PowerPoint presentation than anything helpful. It was very hard - for a neutral - to dislike the American, but equally hard to find anything specific to praise.

But mostly it’s with the board, and with owner Andrea Radrizzani, who might well have made a reasonable choice in dismissing Marcelo Bielsa last February – his teams do tend to reach a burnout point eventually, and there were plenty of signs that his methods had run their exhausting course – but never really nailed down a vision of how Leeds should work after him. Bielsa came in and stamped his ideology on the football club, and when he left there was a vacuum of leadership and of strategic thought. Marsch couldn’t fill it, for all that he kept his LinkedIn profile neat and up-to-date, and it took Radrizzani an age to notice that Marsch didn’t have substance to go with style.

There was a loose idea, based around a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot, but in execution it so often looked like a Football Manager formation being run back, game after game, without any tweaks or updates. Players rarely seemed to know where the next man was, there were no obvious ideas for breaking down specific defences, and their own defence was utterly porous, ending the season with more goals conceded than anybody else.

There was the ghost of a strategy but nothing tangible. Marsch and Leeds became an empty vessel, but because they were capable of some flashy games – the 3-0 win over Chelsea, a 2-1 victory at Anfield, 4-2 at Molinuex – and because when they did score it tended to look good, there seemed to be an assumption that they’d eventually be OK, that the wins would come, that they were too good to go down (even though this Leeds team was surely worse, pound for pound, than the Leeds team that went down back in 2004). By the time reality finally caught up with the Leeds board, it was far too late, and Big Sam was asked to plug the dam with his little finger.

The unjoined dots of the transfer windows

Leeds’ transfer work this year is somehow strangely hard to criticise – the tragic figure of Rutter aside – and yet also pretty uninspiring. Tyler Adams was eminently reliable, Luis Sinisterra was dangerous if inconsistent, Brenden Aaronson was endlessly energetic, Marc Roca was solid and straightforward, and Willy Gnonto was an absolute steal.

But they never amounted to enough between them, islands in a stream of games in which opponents were able to pass them by. Eleven decent players aren’t enough – you need to know how to join the dots. The end result was less joined dots and more half-completed children’s colouring book.

It didn’t help that Illan Meslier regressed horribly, that Patrick Bamford spent more time practicing his violin in the physio’s suite than he did on the pitch, or that Rodrigo started at a mighty gallop before injuries imploded his season as well. Or that Gnonto was repeatedly, mysteriously benched, reduced to occasional cameos despite appearing to be a cut above the rest of the squad every time he got a chance to touch some grass.

The real foul-up was probably failing to find a replacement for Raphinha, sold to Barcelona last summer. Sinisterra and Gnonto were the notional stand-ins but they were callow and apparently untrusted by their managers. They managed 11 goal contributions between them – only three down on Raphinha’s tally last season – but couldn’t provide the same creative edge or the same sense of constant threat, albeit partly because they spent so much time being subbed off or on. Leeds played some lovely football in patches, but were anodyne much more often. That was seldom the case when Raphinha was in the game.

A new chairman, and a new course?

When the ashes of the campaign have cooled down, we’ll be left with a lot of bones to pick over, but the sum of any calculations designed to pinpoint where Leeds made such a mess will boil down to an owner without a cogent plan, appointing a manager without the means to bring a vapid vision to life – but also to an unravelling that was sufficiently gradual that the chairman only realised he’d been left holding a ball of loose wool when it was too late to knit it all back together. The cosy jumper carefully constructed by Bielsa lies in pieces now, and all that’s left to do is to get the needles out and start all over again.

There is a good chance that Radrizzani will not be a part of the rebuild, and on recent evidence that’s probably good news for Leeds. The proposed takeover by the owners of the San Francisco 49ers NFL team will be complicated by relegation, but hopefully will progress eventually – more control being taken by people with experience of managing a successful sports team is likely to be a good thing, although it’s worth remembering that they had substantial shareholdings in Leeds dating back to 2018. Whether that amounted to any kind of cut-through at board level is unclear.

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If Radrizzani does stay then they have a drawing board to go back to, a lot of Marsch’s empty slogans to wipe off it, and a pressing need for a new strategy. They are unlikely to hit the jackpot of being able to bring in a figure like Bielsa a second time, so a more pragmatic approach will likely be required. Until we know who be charting that new course – at boardroom level or on the training pitch – it’s hard to know what will come next. Another 16 years in the lower divisions, anybody?

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