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From Marcelo Bielsa to Sam Allardyce in 14 months, Leeds United seem to have orchestrated the most unwelcome makeover in footballing history. If their spell as the neutrals’ favourites has come to a definitive end, if they would trade an identity as cavaliers to preserve their Premier League status, a shift from purism to pragmatism is rarely as jarring.
The sacked manager Javi Gracia may go down as a forgettable figure in Leeds’ dramatic decline, the departed director of football Victor Orta a pivotal person in first the rise and then the fall. Allardyce will be the four-game gamble that either saves them or further damns this particular United. A fourth manager of a season that began with chairman Andrea Radrizzani branding relegation “impossible” may oversee a demotion that would have many architects.
Ridiculously, Leeds are searching for a second new-manager bounce in three months. Gracia’s reign – and perhaps United’s season – turned on Marc Guehi’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time for Crystal Palace: what had looked a fourth win in seven games for the Spaniard instead turned into a flurry of five goals in 32 minutes. Having lost 5-1 at Elland Road, Leeds were then hammered 6-1 eight days later. Factor in a 4-1 embarrassment at Bournemouth and events spiralled out of Gracia’s control.
Perhaps, as the fourth choice to be the interim manager, they always would have done.
He goes after 71 days in charge of Leeds. It puts him in undistinguished company, one more day than Dave Hockaday, lasting 27 more than the rather more decorated pair of Brian Clough and Jock Stein. He becomes a sign that panic is the default mode at Elland Road. Gracia is a former Watford manager who, implausible as it sounds, survived far longer at Vicarage Road.
But he at least brought some dignity, whereas Orta’s ludicrous antics in the directors’ box mean many will not mourn him. The director of football, however, can point to an integral part in the good times, in a promotion, a top-ten finish and some scintillating football.
However, his position had become untenable, and not merely because the Supporters Advisory Board issued a vote of no confidence in the board on Sunday. He merits credit for the visionary decision to appoint Bielsa in 2018 but has twice botched Leeds’ succession planning since then: first by lining up Jesse Marsch, and seemingly not considering other candidates, and then by proving unable to secure his preferred targets when the American was belatedly dismissed.
Marsch, in fairness, did well to keep Leeds up last season. Yet it was apparent his reign was unravelling long before his sacking and Orta still appeared unprepared. He seemed to overestimate Leeds’ allure when Rayo Vallecano’s Andoni Iraola and Feyenoord’s Arne Slot opted not to leave clubs with plenty to play for this season, and when their stock would remain high this summer, to be parachuted into a relegation battle.
Leeds stumbled into a marriage of convenience with Gracia, until it became one of extreme inconvenience. The Spaniard was scarcely suited to a squad configured for Marsch’s high pressing: his more passive persona and more passive football did not lend control, but more chaos. Leeds conceded 23 goals – a record for a Premier League club in one month – in April; the previous record came in February 2022 as Bielsa’s man-marking game fell apart.
The team’s hideous defensive record over the last two seasons reflects on the Argentinian’s overly ambitious tactics and Marsch’s inability to close a game down, but also on Orta. Leeds have conceded 146 goals in 72 games. Orta’s record in recruitment is decidedly mixed, and there is evidence to suggest he is scarcely a great judge of a defender – notable exceptions of Pascal Struijk and Max Wober aside.
Perhaps playing for Leeds cost Robin Koch and Diego Llorente their places in the Spain and Germany squads, Orta’s strange approach to squad building having left United with an imbalanced group: there is no real back-up to Tyler Adams as a genuine defensive midfielder, no specialist left-back other than the atrocious Junior Firpo and no experienced alternative to the talented but floundering Illan Meslier. It would scarcely have been glamorous but Leeds needed a proven second-choice goalkeeper in the manner of Sam Johnstone or Alex McCarthy, rather than the untried Norwegian Kristoffer Klaesson.
The Orta legacy is apparent in a squad packed with players bought for Marsch, with an American influence, with a collection of graduates from the Red Bull clubs, but too little to show for the policy. Spending a club record £36 million on Georginio Rutter, who has been granted one Premier League start and is yet to even register a shot on target, could prove a fatal misstep.
Or perhaps, under Allardyce, a saviour. That seems unlikely, admittedly, and not merely because of a fixture list that contains Manchester City, Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham.
If Allardyce cannot have an immediate impact, Elland Road may be febrile for Spurs’ visit. There is the sense that if Leeds were to go down, the supporters would have at least preferred it was pursuing Bielsa’s path, a doomed idealism, rather than with an undignified assortment of Marsch, Michael Skubala, Gracia and Allardyce. But relegation could lead to recrimination.
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