Everton survive, Leeds and Leicester are relegated on the final day
A few months before the end of the world, before Leeds United were knocked out of the Premier League and before Everton’s win on the final day of the EPL sent that historic English club into relegation, Leeds were being hailed in the US for their American flair.
There was an American head coach and, by the end of January, three midfielders on the US men’s national team. Her finest moments felt meaningful to sports in the United States. They represented the growth of men’s soccer and the advances Americans have made in global soccer. Their mere presence as protagonists in the world’s top league felt like a step forward.
But then her season spiraled. Jesse Marsch, the Wisconsinite coach, was fired while his team stood on the edge of the relegation zone. Three coaches and countless sighs later, Leeds met their most dreaded EPL fate. It took a win and help on Sunday to avoid relegation; it got neither the one nor the other. The fans cried after the 4-1 defeat by Tottenham. At Liverpool, Everton beat Bournemouth and stayed up – meaning 2015/16 champions Leicester also went down.
And that’s how it came about Question about the guilt of the Americans in the sinking of Leeds: If they were celebrated, couldn’t they be blamed too?
But neither Marsch, nor Tyler Adams, nor Brenden Aaronson, nor Weston McKennie are anywhere near the top of the list of responsible people. On the contrary, maybe that cursed season could have been saved if Leeds had stood by March – or more importantly, if Adams had stayed healthy.
Leeds were better with Jesse Marsch
Marsch was sent off in February after 20 games and just four wins, Leeds were 17th and fears were understandably growing. But eye tests and analysis alike suggested they had fallen victim to football’s randomness. Most expected goals (xG) models – which measure chance generation and their defensive equivalent – suggested Leeds were playing like a mid-table team rather than a bottom-placed team. Only bad luck and a bad degree – neither of which a manager can influence – prevented her from doing so.
Leeds have looked somewhere between stale and terrible in Marsch’s last four EPL games, resulting in the sacking; But even that perception was heavily influenced by uncontrollable things. According to FBref, Leeds have created more xG than their opponent in each of those four games. In between, it won the FA Cup twice. This wasn’t a sinking ship – until the club’s owners and executives panicked and made it a sinking ship.
Under Marsch, Leeds’ expected goal difference excluding penalties was -5.15, or -0.26 per game, which Understat says is good for 11th in the Premier League. Under his three successors, Michael Skubala, Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce, xGD per game fell to -0.93, the league’s worst figure.
The other turning point came in March. In the side’s first six games after March, including two against Manchester United, they were poor but competitive, with a -0.6 xGD per game. Then Tyler Adams injured his thigh muscles in training and everything changed.
Tyler Adams’ injury changed everything
Adams, the USMNT midfielder signed from RB Leipzig last summer, took the Premier League by storm in the autumn. He buzzed around Elland Road and other pitches, shielding Leeds’ defense and bringing the field forward. He was far from perfect, especially with the ball, but he was great without it.
And with Adams on the field, Leeds have been decent. In his 24 starts, they picked up 23 points, and the underlying numbers were even better. Her xGD was -4.7, or -0.19 per game. That was an 11th place pace.
Excluding Adams, their xGD was -16.3 or -1.25 per game in 13 games leading up to Sunday, easily the worst in the league. (By comparison, Nottingham Forest’s worst EPL score over 37 weeks was -0.7.)
Adams underwent hamstring surgery and never returned. In his absence, Leeds plummeted into the relegation zone and never recovered.
The real reasons behind Leeds’ demise
His US teammates were less impressive. McKennie has been inconsistent after joining in January. Aaronson started strong, then faltered, seemingly suffering from the emotions of a relegation battle and the weight of his prize.
But therein lies the real guilt. Leeds have spent more than $150m this season to strengthen their squad but have failed to fill their biggest gaps – namely the gap created by Raphinha’s summer sale to Barcelona.
Their leaders attempted to play “moneyball,” identifying players who were more valuable in Marsch’s Red Bull system than in any other. But they overpaid for those players, such as Aaronson, who was left out of the starting XI when Leeds turned away from the Red Bull ball under Gracia and Allardyce.
Meanwhile, they overlooked qualities like strength in the final third and solid defense. Their high-profile January signing, 20-year-old striker Georginio Rutter, made just one start and never scored. When Leeds were chasing games in April and May and needed goals to get out of the drop zone, Rutter couldn’t even get off the bench.
This was a poorly formed side made incoherent by the change of coach. It’s now a championship team, and more changes are coming.
What’s next for Adams, McKennie and Aaronson?
The relegation will have far-reaching consequences for Leeds, who until Sunday had big plans for stadium expansion and European competitions. Contract clauses will kick in, the roster will need to be redesigned, and Americans will be affected.
McKennie will almost certainly be playing elsewhere next season. His January move from Juventus was a first loan with certain clauses that would either allow or oblige Leeds to make the deal permanent this summer. But the descent undoes all that.
McKennie will return to Juventus where he is under contract until the summer of 2025. Juventus are, of course, struggling financially and could try to re-sign McKennie. Or he could stay in Turin and fight for playing time.
Adams and Aaronson, on the other hand, have both signed contracts with Leeds until 2027. It’s unclear if the relegation will affect that. (The Athletic reported that all Leeds players have clauses that cut their wages, cutting the club’s overall wage bill by 50-60%.)
What is clear, however, is that Adams will have admirers. His notoriety rose in the first half of the Premier League season and increased even further at the 2022 World Cup. EPL clubs will want him. Manchester United have been linked with him. Leeds might try to keep him but he should have options across Europe.
However, Aaronson will most likely stay at Leeds in the Championship unless he pushes for a move from England or the club receive an offer he can’t refuse.
A possible takeover looms over all these potential negotiations. Andrea Radrizzani could still sell his majority stake in the club to the owners of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers – who are currently minority shareholders. Or the descent could hamper sales.
So there is uncertainty among almost everyone involved. The only certainty is that next season will look different — and less glamorous and less American.