In his latest column for leedsunited.com, lifelong supporter Jon Howe looks at the 'Big Six'.
Howe is the author of two books on the club, 2015 hit ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.
Things change quickly in football, and Leeds United in 2020 are a good example of that. There has been a lot of talk about the ‘Big Six’ this week, and this isn’t the platform to discuss and dissect the ‘Project Big Picture’ proposals, except to say that performances on the pitch should maybe always have the final say in how the game is structured?
At the turn of the Millennium things looked very different to today. In a nine-year spell either side of the Year 2000 only Manchester United or Arsenal won the league, Chelsea had yet to be invented, Manchester City were busy ‘doing a Leeds’, Spurs were busy being Spurs and Liverpool hadn’t won the title in a decade. A lot can happen in 20 years, or not happen as the case may be.
Would Leeds United have been considered one of the ‘Big Six’ in 2000? Maybe. The financial structuring of football clubs and the Premier League itself has been propelled into another stratosphere since then, and of course a few years later such a discussion was very much a moot point. But the change in Leeds United’s fortunes over the course of 2020 and their performances in the opening four games of the new Premier League season, suggest that the gap can very quickly be closed in terms of league table status, if not in terms of whatever criteria puts you in the ‘Big Six’.
Leeds were trading blows with the top teams in the Premier League 20 years ago, and here we are again. And it is no coincidence that squad health and progressive planning has a lot to do with it. Leeds have ended the recent transfer window with their squad undeniably in its best shape since that period around 2000, even taking into account the relative challenges of the divisions we have frequented since then.
Today, the squad is probably better balanced than David O’Leary’s, it is certainly leaner and it is bolstered by a readymade procession of home-grown youth products already attuned to a specific culture and philosophy. The squad as it stands today, is a result of a co-ordinated blueprint that has longevity and succession planning at its core. It is a long time since we were able to say that, and a long time since we were able to approach a transfer window and pinpoint the key areas where we needed reinforcements, or a step-change in quality, and subsequently see those exact requirements filled.
Admit it, most of us expected Marcelo to ‘wing it’ in his own sweet way, and go into the season without a recognised central defensive back-up. And no doubt we would have coped perfectly well as a result of some madcap scientific formula which somehow resulted in Jamie Shackleton winning plaudits as the new Franco Baresi after a dogged away win at Newcastle. But thankfully Marcelo spared us some sleepless nights and comprehensively addressed the issue with the signing of Spanish international Diego Llorente.
The accumulation of seven points from four games – including two heroic tussles with the country’s elite clubs – has come largely on the back of utilising last season’s squad. So there is the promise of so much more to come. So far, Patrick Bamford, Jack Harrison, Mateusz Klich and Helder Costa have contributed heavily with goals and assists. Neutral observers have marvelled at our fluidity, intensity and creativity in the opening four games, but with genuine sincerity, you can’t help thinking they have seen nothing yet. In terms of attacking options, Ian Poveda and Rodrigo have shown merely flashes of their potential, we have yet to see Raphinha set foot on the pitch and then there’s Pablo. There is always Pablo.
It may seem that Leeds are overloaded with three left-footed right wingers, but most of us are wise to the fact that our formation changes with the wind and any signing made in the last couple of years is on the basis that they can comfortably play anywhere across the field, and could be about to at any moment.
When we talk about things changing quickly in football, I still hold the scars from a period when we somehow managed without a genuine wide player for seemingly about five years. I’m sure a few of us can recall the legitimate excitement when Brian McDermott signed Cameron Stewart and Jimmy Kebe on loan and they lined up in a ‘progressive’ 3-4-3 formation for their first game one Saturday lunchtime at Hillsborough. We all watched on expectantly as if ‘wingers’ were about to be revealed like Steve Jobs pulling the first iPod out of his back pocket after talking up a home improvement revolution at an Apple convention. This was purest alchemy. Except we lost 6-0 and the screwball ‘wingers’ experiment was hastily packed up into a cardboard box and shoved under the bed to wait for the next charity bag. Leeds United; the wingless wonders, or other such descriptions.
And yet here we are six years later with a squad in the rudest health most of us can remember. But this hasn’t happened by accident, and it perhaps makes a mockery of what constitutes a ‘Big Six’ club, when a transfer window can be navigated with such strategic composure. It’s almost like everyone recently had a couple of months off with nothing to do but watch videos, scratch out plans and have distant conversations. Whilst other clubs appear to put all their eggs in one basket and pin their hopes on one big signing which never looks likely to come off, and which results in an unsightly scramble on deadline day and still leaves the fanbase dissatisfied and empty, like when you concede six goals perhaps? Man, we know how that feels.
So despite not knowing what division we would be in, and despite the minor distraction of still needing to scratch a 16-year-old itch, Leeds were able to make plans and then, in the most unruly and disobedient transfer window ever, were able to execute them.
Leeds are not the finished article, and no one is suggesting they are, and no one is suggesting other clubs aren’t in similarly primed and compelling condition, like Wolves, Leicester and Everton, for example. But when all the talk at the moment is of the ‘Big Six’, it will be interesting to see how that plays out in terms of league positions this season, and how those fabled ‘elite’ clubs look in terms of leadership, structure, culture and continuity come May next year. Unless of course, being ‘Big’ means none of those things?