The Square Ball Week: Boy For Sale 2 (Electric Boogaloo)

In 2019-20 articles, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

I said much here last week about football and clairvoyance, and how predicting anything about soccer will make you look foolish.

Then I said it might be better next season for Leeds United to concentrate on promotion, while letting Tottenham Hotspur concern themselves with teenage winger Jack Clarke’s fitful development. That, I realise, was a prediction about football. So already I look foolish.

After moving to Spurs for £10m, Clarke is back on loan and our problem again, so I need to find some way of pretending I never said any of that. Welcome back, Jack! You should have never gone away.

Parts of my thinking still work. This is a clever deal. Leeds have managed to add £10m to their budget and their Financial Fair Play calculations while still keeping the player; when Victor Orta said Championship clubs have to be creative to deal with FFP, this must be what he meant, rather than whatever we end up doing with Ouasim Bouy this year.

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Leeds have also narrowed this part of the squad building gamble down to a known quantity. Jack Harrison has been invited back for the same reason. The modern transfer market is a game of information, and even with Marcelo Bielsa’s illicit scouting Leeds can’t be better informed about any players than those that played for them last year. To fill the wings Helder Costa has arrived, and anyone watching him in his two seasons for Wolves at this level will feel sure he has an excellent chance of being a success. The other options, given Marcelo Bielsa seems to want a lot more from out wide next season, were consistently reported as either Harry Wilson or more likely Ryan Kent, both wingers from Liverpool; assuming those enquiries failed, where better to place your trust than in a player to whom, though raw and once famously fragile, Bielsa was turning to change second halves last season?

From that point of view it’s a no-brainer. Without our brains, though, we have to deal with our emotions, and that’s when this loan-back feels strange. Although Leeds United’s social media team made the best of things with their ‘Bye Jack’, ‘Hi Jack’ cheek, they couldn’t altogether disguise the strangeness of Clarke being in two places at once on Tuesday. You could flip from channel to channel to see Clarke in Leeds gear or Spurs gear, talking to LUTV about how Bielsa improved him, “Just with movement, and stuff, and other things”, or looking around Tottenham’s training ground, that he won’t be using. Here he is posing in a Spurs shirt. There he is signing a contract with Victor Orta. And what about next May? Saturday, lifting the Championship trophy at Elland Road. Sunday, setting off like Dick Whittington to London, with his cat and a knapsack full of Red Bull and Yaar Bars.

If you think that feels weird, you should try 1996/97 when, four years after winning the title with an iconic midfield four, Leeds faced them all in their new guises, David Batty supping Brown Ale for Newcastle instead of Tetley’s for Leeds, Gary Speed recovering his boyhood glee at Everton, Gary McAllister in moody blue shades for Coventry City, with Gordon Strachan in their dugout and Noel Whelan also on the pitch for added raised-im-and-flogged-im Jack Clarke eeriness. It didn’t help that our own midfield in some of these games included Andy Couzens, Mark Ford and Carlton Palmer. It felt like our world had been turned upside down.

That’s what happens when you mistake short-term for long-term attachments to players then mingle them with constant love for a football team. But that’s something we’ve been encouraged to do at Leeds, where someone like Norman Hunter could join in 1962 and play for fourteen years, join the coaching staff, return as a radio commentator, and still be watching games at Elland Road now. We just have to close our eyes and hope the three seasons he played against us for Bristol City go away.

In Jack Clarke’s case there’s a pang stored up ready for his parting when, presuming he blossoms the way his talent deserves, we’ll feel that £10m and another season together undervalued him after all, and feel bereft that his work in a Leeds shirt through the season, hopefully contributing to a fresh start for us in the Premier League, will also be an ending. Bye Jack, and no hi Jack.

One thing that still holds true from last week’s column, though, is that this season is not about Jack Clarke. It’s about promotion, and how Marcelo Bielsa will achieve it.

The story of the Peacocks’ exile from the top flight is already a sad tale of squandered potential. There’s an alternate universe out there where Scott Carson, James Milner, Aaron Lennon, Matthew Kilgallon, Ben Parker, Aidy White, Fabian Delph, Jonny Howson, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor, Lewis Cook and Kalvin Phillips (and the disc jockey, if he plays this) are all playing together for Leeds at the top of the Premier League, welcoming Jack Clarke and Jamie Shackleton into their ranks.

That so many of those were, at various times, our best players shows how restricted Leeds have been in the transfer market; we could never afford players better than the ones Thorp Arch could produce, but without those better players to guide the youngsters, they were crushed in Warnock or Hockaday’s Varney-Bellusci mincing machines until they were sold out of captivity. The other thing Leeds could never afford was time, for a group of good players to mature and excel together the way we wished.

But the approach was very different last time Leeds were promoted to the top flight. David Batty was already a first team mainstay and, towards the end of 1989/90, Gary Speed became too good to ignore. But of the players that ended that season, only Mervyn Day, Peter Haddock and Bobby Davison had not been bought by Howard Wilkinson over the previous year or so. Some had only been bought in the previous few months; Chris Kamara crossed for Lee Chapman to head the crucial winner at Bournemouth in May but both had only signed in January. Kamara, already aged 32, was gone again after starting seven more games.

Wilkinson built a squad for a job, to get Leeds promoted. He’s rightly credited with starting the work at Thorp Arch that means Jack Clarke is such a polished gem now, but in interviews at the time he emphasised that he wasn’t even thinking about youth players until Leeds were in the First Division.

Marcelo Bielsa shares some of that perspective. His knack for improving players is obvious; who would have thought last summer that £25m couldn’t buy Kalvin Phillips. His trust in youth players was clear in the first team last season, and his philosophies were refined in years spent working with the teenagers before taking over the first team at Newell’s Old Boys.

But youth players are a means to an end for Bielsa. He achieves his preferred small, harmonic squad by calling young players into the system when required, rather than having experienced professionals frustrated in reserve. The emphasis on system is important; Jamie Shackleton filled in for Luke Ayling at right-back not because it would aid his development but because he displayed a set of attributes conforming to Bielsa’s demands for that position. His name, age, position, progress and potential were largely irrelevant; Shackleton fulfilled the profile better than anyone else in the Under-23s, including the nominal right-backs, so he played.

I think we see something similar with the first team. Bielsa has spent most of his career coaching the national teams of Argentina and Chile, and international football presents different problems to club football. International head coaches are not responsible for individual player’s career trajectories or development. They have to select a squad that will achieve an objective; winning a round of qualification matches or winning a World Cup, or just qualifying from the group stage when Chile, after so long, finally went to the World Cup: three games against three specific opponents. Bielsa succeeds as an international coach because his way of playing is so polished that selection is a matter of analysing a nation’s available players to find those with attributes that will make it work. See Gary Medel, the Chilean Kalvin Phillips, although nobody else saw that before Bielsa.

Bielsa deliberately avoids interacting with the personalities of his players, an inevitability in international football when they spend months away from you playing across continents, but a choice in the club game. He makes the choice because he can’t allow mood or sympathy to influence the analysis involved in matching players to the objective. It might have been one player’s dream to play in a World Cup for Chile. But if the analysis shows another player better suited to his position, it’s better not to know.

I wonder whether, despite Bielsa’s praise for his performances last season, this is why Pontus Jansson has been seen on a running track with Malmö this week, apparently disinvited from training with the Leeds squad at Thorp Arch. That situation has been the occasion of the fiercest rumours of the week, and it’s been illuminating to follow closely. Nothing was being reported in Sweden until members of the Waccoe forum emailed Swedish journalists asking for information; they didn’t have any and couldn’t find any, so turned those emails into stories. Those stories then transferred to the English press, citing ‘reports in Sweden’, that in turn went back to the forum: ‘This is being reported in Sweden now so there must be something in it.’

The Square Ball Podcast also stuck an oar into the news cycle this week, without even thinking; in a segment that began ‘let’s start a rumour’, we picked Danny Welbeck from a list of free agents, and watched while it took just a few hours for Welbeck to be linked by ‘news’ sites to Leeds, with tweets about the joke on our podcast being cited as the source. As I write, betting markets have Leeds just behind Everton in the race to sign him, and forum threads and tweets are seriously debating the merits of a deal. There’s no heat or light here, but lots and lots of clicks.

That said, Jansson is not at Thorp Arch and that is strange. But it’s not impossible. Every explanation has been suggested, from a pressing need to sell-to-buy, to a bust-up with Bielsa. Jansson’s brother used a tweet to deny the last one, and it doesn’t sound feasible; when would Bielsa have allowed close enough contact with Jansson for a bust-up to happen?

The break, if there has been one, feels more likely to have occurred at a computer screen, where data analysis converges with video footage to determine the plans for the successful achievement of promotion for Leeds in 2019/20, while outside another summer passes Marcelo Bielsa by. We are not privileged to know the precision of Bielsa’s analytical methods, but we know their exhaustive depth, and we know the results are often counter-intuitive; they revealed Phillips was a centre-back in hiding, for a start. At the end of last season, Marcelo Bielsa thought Pontus Jansson had been one of his best players. This summer, in his never-ending quest to quantify and refine, he might have reached another conclusion.

This could be a case of analysis overriding a story, of Bielsa’s work towards a happy ending for Leeds United creating an unhappy ending for Jansson’s dreams of leading Leeds to the Premier League. There may be better solutions, stronger plans that don’t include Jansson, although that’s unthinkable to most of us who have watched him play over the last three seasons. But then, who among us can think like Bielsa? ◉

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(photo by Lee Brown)