The Square Ball Week: Someone Who Cares

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

It’s either very brave or very foolish to write about Leeds United’s transfer activity hours before the transfer window closes, with an extra layer of daft if you publish it too, but if you can’t act like a dildo on deadline day, when can you?

Besides, barring any late night excitements or disappointments, United’s business seems to have been done. Well, done yesterday, but not announced until today, because the Swedish media doesn’t count, right?

Two strikers are in to join Jay-Roy Grot, to replace the two most recently out, although Chris Wood is a bigger gap to fill than Souleymane Doukara. Pawel Cibicki has joined permanently from Malmo, and Pierre-Michel Lasogga on loan from Hamburg.

But. But but but. Where’s Gestede? ask some. Where’s Gayle? Where’s Rhodes? Where’s Gestede and Gayle and Rhodes, for god’s sakes? Andrea promised he’d spend all the Wood money on a proven replacement. What’s this Lasogga and Cibicki, are they buddy detectives from the 1980s? Where’s our Championship experience — and why the lies?

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Well, first of all, Andrea Radrizzani didn’t promise a proven Championship goalscorer to replace Chris Wood in this window. What he promised was that the transfer fee, like the fee for Charlie Taylor, will be fully invested in the playing squad. “Supporters can rest assured that monies generated from the sale of Chris Wood will be reinvested into adding to the 12 signings we have made already,” he said, in a statement on the official website. We might go buy a centre-half with the money, or we might put it all into Andy Lonergan’s wages, but it’ll be spent on players of some kind.

And at some point. Because there was no explicit or implied time limit put on adding to the signings, either, meaning there’s no actual prerogative to spend everything in the bank now now now, whether it’s on Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson or on someone else. Essentially Radrizzani’s promise amounts to a guarantee that he’s not going to steal or waste the club’s transfer receipts, which sounds so basic it ought to not need saying, but then I guess he’s seen where we’ve been over the last fifteen years.

At any point in the last fifteen years, though, Andrea Radrizzani would have been chased out of Elland Road in a Stanningley Cab for transfer window activity like this. “If Cellino had lost a manager and sold the top scorer 😂😂😂” tweeted Sun journalist Alan Nixon, missing the point by miles.

When Cellino lost a manager, he found Dave Hockaday. When he sold the top scorer, he found Souleymane Doukara. This summer, by contrast, Leeds United’s game of lost and found has uncovered Thomas Christiansen, who in a couple of months has moved Leeds United well beyond the decent but one-dimensional football of Garry Monk; and Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski, and if Donald Trump and North Korea start World War Three and after the horror subsides Saiz and Alioski are the only two players we have left, I will still pay money to see them play.

Around them, Felix Wiedwald and Vurnon Anita have looked more than capable, Matthew Pennington and Caleb Ekuban looked decent before injury, Kemar Roofe, Liam Cooper, Eunan O’Kane and Kalvin Phillips have been playing like new signings, Conor Shaughnessy has been a welcome surprise, and only Mateusz Klich and Madger Gomes — the latter intended for the U23s anyway — have yet to impress. I reckon we’ve found more than we’ve lost this summer.

When Howard Wilkinson gave an interview to The Square Ball back in 2011, he spoke of his experience in the transfer market, outlining something we’ll call Wilko’s Ratio:

“When I started managing way back in the 1970s,” he said, “I realised fairly quickly that if you bring ten players in from transfers, if six of them are successes you’ve done very well. I think that’s true of any manager, even the great ones.”

Thirteen new players have come in this summer, not counting Hadi Sacko and Pontus Jansson, who we’d seen before, and according to Wilko’s Ratio we’re looking for 7.8 of them to make the grade. Two, Saiz and Alioski, are verified hits. Wiedwald and Anita are first team regulars, so that’s four, halfway there, and things are looking very good.

That leaves us with nine players who have either only made slight appearances or have only signed this week, and Wilkinson suggests we can expect four of them to impress. Conversely, that means five won’t; the David Kerslakes, say, to our Tony Dorigos.

Who those players will be is anybody’s guess, because no player is signed to fail. Wilkinson was managing in an era when statistical data and player analysis was not the detailed science it is now, and the development of those tools alongside good old fashioned scouting reports is meant to reduce the risk factor of Wilko’s Ratio as far as possible. Leeds have further complicated things — and spread their risk — by signing players like Ekuban and Cibicki as ‘projects’, who they know will need to be coached into improvements before they can be assessed, buying time and easing pressure. But even when adjusting for, y’know, computers and that, Wilko’s Ratio seems a reasonable rule of thumb.

Anybody’s guess, though, if anybody has watched Leeds United, is that the first failures will be the strikers, because they’re the players we most need to succeed, they’re the players there are already grumbles about, and they’re the players under the most pressure, and on whom there will be the most focus. Pierre-Michel Lasogga in particular is arriving from the Bundesliga with a weekly wage north of £50,000 per week, a custom baseball cap with his initials on it, and a mother with a bleached mohawk who, acting as his agent, hit back when Hamburg’s major investor Michael Kuhne called her son “The flop of the century.”

German football expert Raphael Honigstein tweeted that Lasogga is “inconsistent, slow and injury prone”, so everything is coming together nicely for Lasogga to be derided as the German Billy Paynter before he and his mum even have the chance to be chased out of the Millennium Square Christkindlmarkt for lewd behaviour.

Which is why the calls for proven Championship quality have some credence. We’re up against Wilko’s Ratio here, so we need to stack what odds we can in our favour, not punt everything on a player whose background reeks of risky. That’s the point, though: United haven’t punted everything. A loan fee, a proportion of wages, and an easy way to kick him back if it doesn’t work out, even if it upsets his mother. It’s a good value risk, and that’s the transfer game.

Because whatever Britt Assombalonga cost, whatever Chris Wood cost, whatever Jordan Rhodes cost, whatever Dwight Gayle or Jordan Hugill might move for, you could stick another five million on top today and rush it through without thinking, because it’s the last week, day, hour of the transfer window and a man in a yellow tie is shouting very loudly and your club’s fans are waving dildos and making demands. Sign players! Expensive players! Expensive players we’ve heard of! Now!

I don’t know about you, but a lot of the expensive players I’ve heard of at the Championship level, I’ve heard of because they’re crap. It was the same with managers in the summer, when I was relieved, amused and nervous about ending up with Thomas Christiansen. If we’d got Alan Curbishley or Alan Pardew instead, I would have just been depressed: the cost of familiarity, I guess.

The joy of our transfer dealings has been the unpredictability. Victor Orta has performed well above the expectation inspired by reports from his former employers on Teeside by presenting us with Saiz and Alioski, and the responses to those transfers make amusing reading now, compared to the responses to their every caress of a Mitre Delta since we saw what they can do. I’m excited about discovering what Lasogga might do more than I would be excited about confirming what I know Jordan Rhodes can’t, so give me a dip into the unknown. It’s a heckuva lot cheaper.

A cautious dip, with rubber rings and the RNLI on hand, though, because signing players is still about minimising risk to move Wilko’s Ratio in our favour. When I say, give me the unknown, I mean, give me the unknown that scouting reports and detailed analysis have removed the unknowns from, at least from our management team’s point of view. If Lasogga is a punt, there are at least signs, given how long negotiations have gone on, that the club have done their homework and convinced themselves that he’s the right player at the right price, rather than a pin stuck in the wall just because we have to replace Chris Wood right now.

And we don’t need to replace Chris Wood right now. As long as the transfer fee doesn’t get moved into some mysterious offshore pot, or as long as the construction bill for putting some shipping containers behind the north-east corner and calling it a Fanzone doesn’t run to £15m, that money can be spent in January, or next summer, or whenever the right player for the right price becomes available. The boost of this season’s start has us all heading for the Premier League in Alioski’s space-age hair-rocket, but the target in preseason was the play-offs, and longer term to reach the Premier League within five years. We shouldn’t ignore opportunities to get promoted — but nor should we mistake opportunities for illusions conjured up in dreams. There was a reason I invoked Robbie Fowler and Seth Johnson earlier.

Besides, after cheering the players at the end of a big performance at Nottingham Forest, whose next thought was, “We’d better get a new striker and centre-half in sharpish, these aren’t going to do anything.” It’s early days, but these are already doing anything they want with the ball at one end, and stopping opponents doing anything at the other. New players, new styles of play, new coaching and even a black away kit have all combined in an instant alchemical drama, and if when the smoke clears we don’t end with gold out of all that assorted and unexpected lead, at least we should still have something new: trust.

Sure, Massimo Cellino said we should trust him. So did Ken Bates, although he only promised “A lorra lorra laughs.” (I didn’t laugh.) So far with Radrizzani we’re in the realms of actions as well as words, and in this case, keeping Wood’s transfer fee on account until it can be spent wisely is as much an ‘action’ as spending it all right now on a household name.

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It’s not very thrilling on a deadline day, but deadline day wasn’t invented for careful custodians, so while the rest of football goes absolutely off Dale Winton’s trolley in the closing hours of the window, Leeds fans might have to be content with trusting the apparently careful custodian who took the club’s reigns this summer, and says he’ll invest the money — properly. If he doesn’t, there’ll be hell to pay, but if he had invested all of it in Dwight Gayle today instead of some of it in Lassoga, who would be any happier? And why worry about Dwight Gayle, when you could have a custodian in charge who can be trusted to care about Leeds United, and a club that might have found a magic transfer touch by buying the unexpected? ◉

(feature image by Jim Ogden)