Cashing in on Phillips and Raphinha gives a club like Leeds no guarantees
The good news for Leeds is that last season’s injury crisis means they have had plenty of practice playing without their stars. The bad news is that this time it’s permanent. Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha are both on their way and so Leeds, suddenly but not unpredictably, are cast in the familiar position of a club on the rise seeing their greatest assets are stripped away and needing to rebuild. The inevitability of the pattern is one of the great sadnesses of the financial structures of modern football.
Phillips is 26. He was born in Leeds. He is a Leeds fan. He joined the academy when he was 14. He has played more than 200 league games for the club. But not even the most blinkered Leeds fan could realistically blame him for accepting an offer from Manchester City. He will make far more money, play under one of the greatest coaches ever and be in contention for the most prestigious prizes. Leeds, in fact, may think themselves lucky they were able to keep him for so long.
Raphinha is 25. When he was 19 he made the hop from Brazil to Portugal, moving from Vitória Guimarães to Sporting before going on to Rennes, from where Leeds picked him up in 2020. For him, each club has been a step up the ladder; it’s no criticism to say that from the moment he arrived at Leeds he was looking at where he could go next. Assuming Chelsea are where he ends up, that is a clear progression and perhaps all the more important in a World Cup year as he seeks to confirm his place in the Brazil side. Again, that is simply how modern football is: nobody has let anybody down or performed an act of betrayal.
This is the problem for clubs below the elite level. Whether you develop your own players or sign promising talent from elsewhere, eventually somebody richer comes and takes them away (what Leeds did to Rennes is, of course, no different to what Chelsea and City are doing to them; as Blackadder observed to Baldrick: “It is the way of the world … I am annoyed and so I kick the cat, the cat pounces on the mouse and finally the mouse bites you on the behind.”)
Some clubs manage the transition better than others. Leeds’ owners have openly spoken of Leicester as a model, buying young, then developing, selling and replenishing. It is pretty much the only way to be if you are not one of the elite; the mess at Everton shows what can happen to clubs who don’t accept their stepping-stone status but try to compete by focusing on ready-made talent that has faltered elsewhere; some experience can help, some bargains are to be had, but as a wholesale policy it is costly and doomed.
But it is brutally hard. The rich can afford mistakes. Manchester United have made almost nothing but mistakes over the past decade and yet they linger as perennial top-four challengers. Chelsea can spend £100m on Romelu Lukaku and, when it goes wrong, pack him off for a meagre loan fee without any real consequences for their budget. Wealth offers insulation.
If a club such as Leicester gamble on a slightly more expensive option and it goes wrong, the consequences would be severe: perhaps they have to offload a player early before he is at peak value and before they have a replacement lined up; perhaps they then can’t afford the replacement for a player they have planned to sell, and that has a knock-on effect in future seasons.
Leeds probably would rather have moved on only one this summer and one next, but they should end up with around £110m as compensation. That represents an opportunity, but it is one fraught with risk. Liverpool used the sale of Philippe Coutinho to fund the signings of Virgil van Dijk and Alisson, and so became the principal beneficiaries of Paris Saint-Germain’s world-record signing of Neymar from Barcelona. That Tottenham landed a young Christian Eriksen as part of their splurge after the sale of Gareth Bale was meagre consolation for the lack of impact made by the other six signings.
Just because Liverpool signed two top-class players, which worked, and Tottenham went for seven, which didn’t, doesn’t mean there is any more general lesson to be drawn in how a windfall should be spent. Liverpool and Spurs were at different levels and at different points in their development.
Even if Leeds could find a pair of £50m talents willing to join, the chances are they leave in a year or two, landing them back in much the same position they are now. But the priority for Leeds is surely not only to strengthen their squad but to deepen it, to mitigate the sort of problems that blighted them amid last season’s injury crisis.
The attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson and the right-back Rasmus Kristensen have already arrived from RB Salzburg for a combined fee of £41m. Aaronson was a long-term target, while Kristensen played under Jesse Marsch at Salzburg for two years before the manager moved to RB Leipzig. Nothing is guaranteed when players move clubs, but both should fit the philosophy. The 25-year-old Spanish holding midfielder Marc Roca has signed from Bayern for £10m; he may or may not work, but again he fits the model of a relatively cheap signing used to a similar style of play with room for development.
Raphinha’s departure leaves an obvious attacking shortfall. The 21-year-old Belgium forward Charles De Ketelaere has been linked with a move from Club Brugge and, after the experience of last season, it seems likely there could be a move for another forward as well, ideally one who can play wide.
Everything will depend on the individuals, but the thinking behind Leeds’s signings looks promising. No signing, though, is ever a guaranteed success; Leeds have been forced, as other clubs of their stature habitually are, into a series of gambles. And that means through no real fault of their own they begin the season amid uncertainty and under pressure.