Had the dice rolled differently yesterday afternoon, it was possible that Leeds United would have been in a position to introduce Max Aarons to their crowd before the start of their Carabao Cup tie against Shrewsbury Town.
For most of the day, Leeds were under the impression that the deal was done pending formalities. A fee was agreed with Norwich. Aarons had committed to travelling to Yorkshire and a hotel was booked for him. The deal reached the stage of a medical with plans in place to unveil him. Then came a call to say Bournemouth were scuppering everything.
By the time kick-off against Shrewsbury came, the low priority of a first-round game which took some sweat to win, Aarons was on his way to the south coast, off to Dean Court. In the end, rolling dice had little to do with it. The defender was headed one way before about-turning and disappearing in another, to Leeds’ complete surprise. The club had been confident that the involvement of Daniel Farke in the process would ensure their bid for Aarons avoided any last-minute obstacles or changes of heart.
The turn of events, on the assumption no further twists are to come, is a blow for Farke on a number of levels. Yesterday was bring-your-boots day to Elland Road, a joke Leeds seem to revisit regularly, with injured first-team players not so far off the number who were fit. There is a temptation to say that only at Leeds could that be the case in the season’s first week but whether that be true or not, Farke’s task before kick-off against Shrewsbury was to scrape together all the bodies he could find. Enforced absentees were in double figures.
The relief for him should have been that throughout the morning, United were not a mile away from making two additions to his defence. Aarons was lined up for a total package believed to be worth around £7m up front. Similar progress had been made with Tottenham Hotspur’s Joe Rodon and, as of last night, Rodon was still in line to join on a season-long loan from Spurs. In the background behind League Cup build-up was genuine action, just as action was called for. Aarons’ retreat blindsided them entirely.
Recruitment has become imperative because Tuesday’s injury update from Elland Road — Liam Cooper out for eight weeks, Crysencio Summerville missing for three, Junior Firpo rehabbing from knee ligament damage and not yet close — was like Ant and Dec on the wind up. Farke had spoken about the handicap of training with only 16 available players before Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Cardiff City and fresh problems off the back of that game, Cooper’s the worst, hiked up the pressure for impetus in the transfer market.
Leeds anticipated that in a tight and highly transitional summer, the whole of the window would be needed for recruitment but stasis was no longer an option. It hardly helped that Willy Gnonto missed yesterday’s tie, despite being fit. Farke refused to be drawn on what was happening and did not kill speculation that the forward had asked not to play because of transfer interest in him. To this point, Leeds have held firm in making it clear to Gnonto that he will not be sold and a stand-off appeared to have developed. “What I can say are the facts and the fact is that he was not available,” Farke said. “There will be the time to make some comments.”
The loss of Aarons from a position where the deal looked done will hurt Farke on more than one level because the pair are so intertwined. Of the targets Leeds have gone after so far, Aarons by a distance was the one Farke knew most about, a quick and modern right-back who was integral in both of the seasons that the German steered Norwich out of the Championship: 41 league starts on the first occasion, 45 during the second. His assists were not vast in number, eight in total across the two years, but he fitted into Farke’s system where full-backs got forward and contributed to chance creation. Significantly, on the way to Farke’s second promotion, Norwich took the title at a cost of just 36 goals and Leeds’ draw with Cardiff, not least the nature of the two goals they shipped, reminded everyone that no part of their team was weaker across United’s Premier League sojourn.
Farke blooded Aarons at such a young age that it felt as if he had been on the scene forever but the England Under-21 international is only 23, albeit with over 200 league appearances banked already. He had a year left on his contract at Norwich but he wanted a way out this summer, the opportunity for a fresh start elsewhere, and Norwich were willing to listen to offers for him provided the valuations were serious. Southampton were touted as a possible destination for him last week but Leeds moved their own interest forward earlier this week, given an extra card to play by the presence of Farke at Elland Road. Aarons’ progression was symbolic of Farke’s commitment to using the best of Norwich’s academy resources and fitness-wise, he barely missed a match. But Bournemouth, with Premier League money to dangle, liked his resume too.
The attempt to court Aarons, much like the approach for Rodon, hinted a little more to the sort of squad Leeds want to construct: one with a British or domestic core, one with Championship know-how and, in a few instances, prior links to Farke himself. Farke left United in no doubt when he joined them that when it came to transfer business, he would be in the thick of it: a manager rather than a head coach with authority to pick and give final approval over the targets he wanted. Leeds seem very willing to pin their project specifically to him.
United’s manager is similarly familiar with Sam Byram, another former Norwich player, which explained why Byram was brought in as a free agent last month and signed on a 12-month deal 24 hours before the season started. The 29-year-old arrived with questions surrounding his fitness, the natural legacy of injuries over the years, but he completed pre-season without missing a session and without Leeds having to protect him at all. Again, Farke had established confidence in Byram as a footballer provided he was able to stay fit. It was telling that having used him in the second half on Sunday, Farke admitted that Byram might well have started the game had he had more minutes in his legs.
Even with Ethan Ampadu, Leeds’ first signing of the close season for £7m from Chelsea, there is prior history in as much as Farke came close to signing him on loan before the beginning of the 2020-21 Championship term. The move failed to materialise and Norwich strengthened their midfield with Oliver Skipp from Spurs instead but Farke had analysed Ampadu to the point of being certain that the Wales international would enhance City’s line-up. He was equally certain that this time around, Ampadu was more than good enough for the Championship and robust enough to operate as one of the pivots in his 4-2-3-1. It is an area where Farke likes to dominate.
Byram’s fitness aside, it has not shaped up into a summer of gambles for Leeds. Goalkeeper Karl Darlow, now 32 and given his debut in a 2-1 win over Shrewsbury, is a former Championship title winner. Rodon started his career with Swansea City and, for all that his chances at Spurs have been few, took himself out of his comfort zone with a loan to Rennes and France’s Ligue 1 last season. Leeds wanted him and Aarons signed and registered in time for Birmingham City away this weekend because without them, Farke’s head count is about as small as it can get. But for Saturday at least, Farke can only count on having one of them.
To that end, last night’s line-up was as sparse as Farke could afford it to be and fairly young too. His team made it happen against Shrewsbury nonetheless, goals from Joe Gelhardt and Pascal Struijk pushing them through to the second round after a dozy first half which called for a sharp change of gear to at least avert one meltdown.
Farke settled for a job done in 90 minutes but the result was not the story of the evening and no great solace for the bewilderment that preceded it, or the confusion about Gnonto afterwards. And all this after a 10am sentencing hearing at the city’s Crown Court to deal with a bomb hoax aimed at Elland Road. Aliens arriving from space and wanting to know how Leeds United roll would have picked the right day to land.
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