Leeds seem set to lose Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha and this on top of sacking Bielsa leaves the club’s owners potentially in the firing line.
So the scramble for Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips has begun. Arsenal have already submitted a formal offer to Leeds United for Raphinha (which, according to reports, the club is dismissing out of hand) while Spurs and Manchester United are also said to be interested in signing the winger. Phillips, meanwhile, seems destined to head for Manchester City. But while Leeds supporters will obviously be apprehensive about losing two such influential players with no apparent direct replacements lined up, it feels increasingly as though Jesse Marsch’s rebuild of Leeds is getting underway.
Since winning promotion back to the Premier League in 2020, Leeds have spent a shade over £200m on new players, but the amount that they’ve raised from transfer fees is… nothing whatsoever. Of the top 100 clubs ranked by transfer expenditure between then and now, Leeds are one of just three clubs (along with AC Monza of Italy and Al-Hilal of Saudi Arabia) to not have raised a single penny from selling players, but this now seems certain to come to an end.
The last few months have felt like something of a game of Risk for the owners of the club. Their decision to relieve Marcelo Bielsa of his duties at the end of February may have been understandable in some respects, but it seemed to alienate a substantial proportion of the club’s fanbase, and the record of his replacement wasn’t really stellar enough to quell that feeling, even if he did reach his base-line of keeping the club in the Premier League.
There certainly isn’t a refusal to bring in new players on the part of the club. Already this summer, Brenden Aaronson and Rasmus Kristensen have arrived from one of Marsch’s former clubs, RB Salzburg, for a combined transfer fee of almost £35m while Marc Roca has signed from Bayern Munich for £10m. Another name that has been repeatedly linked with a move to Elland Road has been Tyler Adams, another player with whom Marsch is associated from their time together at RB Leipzig.
Of those who’ve already been confirmed, none seem to be anything much like direct replacements for Raphinha and Phillips. Roca is a central defender, Kristensen is primarily a right-back, and Aaronson can play in attacking midfield or on the wing. The latter two were already known to Marsch from his time at Salzburg, so it feels reasonable to assume that he has a job for them to do next season, and when announcing the signing of Aaronson, Director of Football Victor Orta made a specific point of mentioning his versatility. This deal was announced on May 26, so it feels like a stretch to say that he would have been brought in as a replacement for Raphinha, unless Orta has been thinking far further ahead than he’s been letting on.
It seems more likely that Marsch may head in a different direction to directly replace him, but the Raphinha situation does place Leeds at an interesting juncture. On the one hand, it has already been reported that the club are ‘sympathetic’ to his position and that they ‘do not wish to stand in the way’ of him leaving. But Raphinha is due to be playing in a World Cup finals at the end of this year, and should he, say, play a starring role in Brazil winning the tournament, his value would surely skyrocket, as might his salary expectations. For all the talk of not ‘standing in the way’ of him leaving, there may be nothing wrong with them briefly putting an arm across the door and pointing out that it could be beneficial for both him and the club for him to stay, even if for just half a season.
Of course, Leeds may already have suggested this and been rebuffed. After all, on the last day of last season at Brentford it looked very much as though he was saying ‘goodbye’ to Leeds fans, and once that mental hurdle has been vaulted it can be difficult to find a way back. Alternatively, Leeds could always renege on any agreement they may have had to sell this summer and insist that he stays (it would hardly be the first time that had happened in professional football), but the fact that an open bidding competition is now almost certain to take place indicates that this is already some distance past any point of no return. The case for the departure of Kalvin Phillips seems similarly open and shut. Manchester City are a-calling, and again Leeds seem resigned to his departure.
What we can say with a degree of certainty is that Jesse Marsch needs to get this right, but it might also be added that the owners of the club need that too. The celebrations at the end of the last season upon avoiding relegation were the sound of a stay of execution rather than of forgiveness, and the removal of Bielsa wore out a lot of the goodwill that many fans held toward the owners. Marsch will need to get it right quickly. Leeds’ last game before the earlier-than-usual international break is away to Manchester United. Leeds supporters won’t need any reminding of what happened against them last season, and with international breaks rapidly becoming the manager sacking windows of the season, it’s not difficult to imagine circumstances under which a trip to Old Trafford might turn extremely sour indeed, should they have a weak start.
These are febrile times and crowds can turn very quickly. Less than a year ago, Leeds United were a happy club, having successfully returned to the Premier League after 16 years away and with a bang, having finished in the top half of the table in their first season back. A year on, the manager – their most popular in almost half a century – has gone, the team survived relegation by the skin of their teeth, and now the two best players seem likely to move on. It seems clear that Jesse Marsch intends to build from the same blocks as used at RB Salzburg and Leipzig but it’s also clear that the fans might not have the appetite for a change in culture.