A summer like this was coming at Leeds United. It was never the right thing to do to speak too preemptively or explicitly about what is now happening at Elland Road, but at various times since promotion two years ago the club have touched on the public relations battle that awaits them – the sale of the silver family.
They have been quite open about the Leicester City model and any amount of research that finds big transfer fees at the center of it all. Sell and reinvest, sell and reinvest, which, as it happens, could be precisely the story of this summer at Leeds. One great asset leaves and another is likely to follow. You could call it the Leicester model on steroids, because Leicester’s policy was traditionally to limit major spending to one at a time, a clear-cut sales strategy.
It is doubtful that Leeds intended to lose Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha in the same close season, and Raphinha’s position is more opaque than Phillips’s, but the fact that the club have been discussing replacements for both players indicates that the stable door was not closed. They thought another year of Phillips was possible until it became known that Manchester City were serious about him and Phillips was serious about them. They had more expectations of losing Raphinha and the only obstacle to her going forward now, given that Barcelona is relatively penniless, is someone paying the right price. Arsenal planned to try again for him this week. Other clubs, like Chelsea, are thinking about it. The entire saga would fizzle out if the market thought Phillips’ departure meant Raphinha was not for sale.
The longer these processes go on, the more a club will begin to think. City’s move for Phillips has been fairly quick, interest in Raphinha slower and more speculative, but the trickle-down effect of talk of players leaving gradually changes the conversation within a club’s recruitment department of the negative impact of losing great assets towards the question. what they could do with the money. It’s due diligence to look at possible replacements, and over time, alternative options start to look attractive. If Raphinha goes and Leeds goes for striker Charles De Ketelaere from Club Brugge, leaving money left over and room to bring in another winger as well, who wins? Or more specifically, does anyone really 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 is remodeling the squad he left behind. Phillips, the cornerstone of Bielsa’s team, is about to leave. Raphinha, as good a signing as any in the Bielsa era, also has bidders around him. The relief is moving to other positions, such as right back with the arrival of Rasmus Kristensen, and the numbers are increasing. The way they see it at Elland Road, Phillips and Raphinha could mean a total of six players coming in: Kristensen, Brenden Aaronson and Marc Roca have already signed, a midfielder, a winger and a forward to follow. It won’t be the same as before but, after Bielsa, nothing was going to be the same. Even little things like a new partnership with injury data specialists Zone7 show a change in operational direction.
However, with footballers like Phillips and Raphinha, it’s not just about replacing their trade. There is also the issue of temperament. Over the years, Leeds have eaten up players who failed to cope with the environment. Many will tell you it can be difficult to play for Leeds, a club where the expectation and relentless air built up by long periods of underperformance eat away at confidence and performance levels. One of the best things to say about Phillips is that playing for Leeds didn’t seem difficult for him. His roots in the city did not weigh on her at all. He was insensitive and hard to fluster, cold and inwardly trusting. Raphinha is cut from the same cloth: he can feed off the crowd or he’s so good that everything around him washes off his back. The talent is visible. Character can be less tangible. But season after season, Leeds always need him.
Raphinha was the first world-class player to walk through the Elland Road gate for the better part of two decades. Bielsa was a marvel and Phillips was the embodiment of the fan on the pitch: the footballer the crowd saw. Losing two, or three, of them in a matter of months is a huge cultural change, which creates anxiety about the impact of those changes. People knew what they had and liked what they had. There will be a period of reflection now that Leeds paints the picture of what comes next. This window could be good or bad for them. That is the nature of the transition. But as a club they will be different, whatever happens the rest of the summer.
Now, it all comes down to recruitment: the wisdom of it and the success of landing the darts in the correct areas of the board. There’s no romance in losing the crown jewels, but it’s undeniable 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 clearly need. Phillips gets the move from him and maybe, in time, Raphinha gets hers. Leeds takes the money and comes 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)