When Leeds United were promoted to the Premier League in the spring of 2020 against a backdrop
of pandemic-infused chaos, it was very poetic. Society was on its knees at the time, but Leeds
partied long into the nights as they got lighter. After 16 years of emblematic hardship and struggle,
they were back in the top flight where even those who felt begrudgingly about that fact could admit
they deserved to be.
At the heart of their near-two-decade struggle were financial issues which stemmed from poor
decision-making by owners who passed the club around like a hot potato. But their recovery became
reality because of the current custodian, Andrea Radrizzani, his director of football Victor Orta and
CEO Angus Kinnear. With them in charge, there was genuine belief that Leeds’ top flight return was
just the first step on a longer, more successful journey.
Marcelo Bielsa, the enigmatic, loveable but idiosyncratic coach, was the real reason for that.
Everybody knows his story by now; his methods are so intense and so demanding, that they either
work or they don’t. In getting Leeds to the Championship play-offs during his first season, and then
promoted the next, with swathes of support from a city and a region reborn behind him, he’d
proven that Leeds was a place he could call home. With the Argentine at the helm, bringing status
and global appeal to the club as well as his philosophy, there was expectation that went with the
hopes and the dreams. Not only had he proven he could mould the squad he inherited, with recently
departed Kalvin Phillips proving the best example, but he attracted talented players too, like
Brazilian forward Raphinha.
Looking back now, though, it is easy to see how key Bielsa was to that optimism. In many ways, it
lived and died with him, at least in that form. When Leeds embraced their strengths and went toe-
to-toe with the Premier League’s elite to secure a top half finish in the 2020-21 season, progress was
obvious. It felt as though, so long as he stayed and the trajectory was positive, the likes of Phillips
and Raphinha, by now full internationals, could fulfil their ambitions at Elland Road. But when
injuries and form began to become problematic and relegation slowly became more of a genuine
possibility, everything unravelled. Bielsa’s sacking was met with mourning, and the ill-feeling almost
took the club back into the Championship, but for final day survival with victory over Brentford.
With Phillips now gone to Manchester City and Raphinha seemingly destined for either Chelsea,
Arsenal or, if they can somehow raise the funds, Barcelona, the buzz of the Bielsa era is coming to an
end symbolically. Where there were hopes of a return to European football a year ago, now there is
a growing sense that survival again next season will be seen as a positive. It isn’t that Jesse Marsch,
Bielsa’s replacement, is a bad coach – he has made his mark with a number of signings already – but
he is effectively starting from scratch, replacing a hero with a new way of working, and the jury is out
on whether that will succeed, especially now he is likely to be going into next season without his two
So the question remains, where next for Raphinha? He has certainly shown his quality and deserves
to step up to the next level. He arrived from Rennes as a player with a big reputation in France and
Brazil, but was something of an unknown quantity to the average Leeds fan. It didn’t take him long
to showcase his ability and become the team’s talisman in an attacking sense; he never shirked
responsibility, with three goals and nine assists in his first season turning into 11 goals and three
assists in his second. When the team needed him front and centre last season, as Phillips and Patrick
Bamford struggled for fitness, he delivered. There was never any doubt over his commitment, and
although it is clear that his time in Yorkshire is almost up, the manner of his embrace with
supporters after the Brentford game suggests he will leave will good relationships in tact.
It feels as though, if he had his way, Raphinha would be heading to Barcelona. That would explain
the delay in a decision, with two London clubs making serious inroads with Leeds. The bright lights of
Camp Nou are hard to resist for any Brazilian forward given what has gone before, particularly one
whose name begins with R. But the financial difficulties the club are facing seem to be much worse
than anybody is willing to accept or comprehend, not least the president Joan Laporta. With time,
Chelsea and Arsenal will come more into play, and it could come down to a choice between them.
Interestingly, both have already added to their attacks. Raphinha would certainly thrive alongside
Gabriel Jesus at Arsenal, while he could find himself creating a new look attack alongside Raheem
Sterling at Stamford Bridge, subject to completion of the latter’s move from Manchester City.
But whatever happens, Raphinha will get a chance at a top club, playing European football. It is the
right time for him to move, even if it does leave Leeds at something of a crossroads.