Regardless of when it was actually done – a couple of months ago, according to Jesse Marsch – parts of Andrea Radrizzani’s latest interview in Italy had a realistic tone. Leeds United need more money, he told Corriere della Sera on Boxing Day. To find next-level football, they need next-level investment. And that money doesn’t come from him.
It’s hardly news to read that cash is king in the Premier League – and it wasn’t a bolt from the road to know that Radrizzani was nearing, as he put it, “the end of the cycle” at Leeds – but how much better. Summing up the club’s past year than to say that change might be a good thing? Possession in football is a game that never ends, a game that few can fully crack. Radrizzani is about to announce his own exit.
Naturally, some governments have the money to fly further than others – in some cases, because they are governments or around them. Exhibit A was Manchester City, who won easily at Elland Road last Wednesday, and Exhibit B was Newcastle United, hosts to Leeds on Saturday and a team thriving on Saudi money.
No-one is pretending that 49ers Enterprises, the group waiting in the wings to buy Radrizzani, are going to throw the oil-rich nation’s wealth at Elland Road, but passing the baton should be the next step, the next step forward, for Leeds. a stronger bet in the future.
Newcastle are Newcastle, St James’ Park the same as ever, the Strawberry pub down the road full of the same drinkers who have always eaten there, but it was impossible to go there without thinking of the poison that gripped the stadium the last time Leeds visited in September 2021. The story then was about Steve Bruce and Mike Ashley, two men who have few allies on Tyneside, but life has changed in the North East and so has the atmosphere.
Since Newcastle’s visit to Elland Road in January 2022, a period when they looked set to be relegated, Eddie Howe’s side have amassed 68 points from 34 games, including one in a grueling goalless draw with Leeds on New Year’s Eve. Leeds have taken 32 points this season and the fact that they have played one less game doesn’t change the contrast at all. Only one of these parties will be happy to see the back of 2022.
In essence, they are two clubs who want the same thing: a competitive force that more closely matches the size of their fanbases, the size of their pitches and their perceived position in the hierarchy of English football. Newcastle getting there faster isn’t just about money. Howe’s team has springs and his players look very happy in these series. He has the approval of the public in a way that Bruce does not.
St James’ Park now has an executive framework, a proper structure. But financially they have moved into the transfer league above Leeds, which Leeds have to get into. Ashley tried to keep the peace by throwing the local eccentric Joe Willock. Now Newcastle can drop £60m ($72m) for Alexander Isak. This is how often new eras begin to settle into place, an impulse emerges.
As Radrizzani put it, in their current state, Leeds cannot grow a bit more than they have. It’s simply that a little more growth is of limited value and doesn’t free them from the cycle of trying not to absorb danger season after season. They averaged less than a point per game in 2022. 2023 starts with a home game against West Ham, which Leeds cannot spray on the wall. However, a point at St James’ Park could be valuable for them if a good result on Tyneside is not allowed to sit in isolation.
In Newcastle, the definition of attrition took place in the monsoon humidity, which erupted non-stop from the very first moment. No one in Marsch’s camp argued with the scoreboard — least of all him. That Newcastle were unhappy with it and felt shortchanged was shown by Callum Wilson’s flick on Illan Meslier in stoppage time when it appeared the hosts’ big chances had passed and Leeds’ defense would hold.
On a day when Everton went to Manchester City and successfully battled the odds, it was Marsch’s duty to do the same and keep the table ticking.
Tyler Adams made the difference in Marsch’s midfield, after returning from suspension. He kept his foot in and blocked Newcastle’s path unopposed. Meslier made key saves and Newcastle squandered great chances as a level first half went into a second completely dominated by Howe’s side. Leeds were increasingly chasing the sort of smash-and-grab incident that arrived when Rodrigo got away with Mateusz Klich unmarked on the left but hit his pass poorly.
“The first half we played very well for me,” Marsch said. “In the second half they decide to play straight and then it’s all about pace and energy. It was about bending but not breaking, and generally I think we did that very well.
Bending but not breaking was what it was for Leeds in 2022, pushing themselves perilously close to the brink in May before finding their way out of relegation and surviving to fight on day two. The threat hasn’t dissipated, and it’s been notable this season that Marsch’s natural exuberance and optimism have become more and more a commentary on the stress of his job—stress that’s easy enough to see and hard to envy.
As a club, Leeds have experienced too much of that in the year behind them and that must be their hope for 2023 – something that changes their trajectory again and looks less like a holding pattern.
(Featured image by George Wood/Getty Images)