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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Richard Jolly

Wilfried Gnonto absence masks the real issue threatening Leeds’ Premier League future

Getty Images

After a substitute changed the game came the questions about the substitute who didn’t change the game. Partly, of course, because he was not even brought on. Jamie Vardy struck to earn Leicester a point, but many an eye at Elland Road was cast to the Leeds bench. Wilfried Gnonto remained there, even as Javi Gracia only brought two players on, even as Luis Sinisterra went off injured and Rodrigo is not deemed fit enough to play 90 minutes.

The breakout star of Leeds’ season has only played 53 minutes in their crowded April. As he came on when they were 3-1 down against Crystal Palace and 5-1 behind Liverpool, arguably only the 10 at Fulham came when much was at stake. Gnonto may be Elland Road’s new cause celebre, the focus of unrest with Gracia, even as Jack Harrison and Sinisterra, the wingers he has preferred, have chipped in with valuable goals and assists in the Spaniard’s brief reign.

It is less than three months since Gnonto was terrifying Manchester United at Old Trafford, but that was under Michael Skubala, the caretaker before the interim. In a season of three managers, Gnonto may be suffering because of regime change. His combination of pace, unpredictability and fearlessness could offer the added dimension to prove decisive in a relegation battle; but not if he does not enter the pitch.

Gnonto may be assuming symbolic status at Leeds. He was the afterthought who briefly became the main attraction, the cut-price signing they made after missing out on Cody Gakpo, the £5 million buy whose price beggared belief. He became the man who roused Elland Road: first in exhilaration, now in frustration.

Gracia’s explanations for overlooking him were bland and unconvincing. “My job is to try and take decisions and I try and do it for the best for the club,” he said, somewhat uninformatively. Yet if it is unsurprising their fourth choice to become their third manager of the season may not be the ideal candidate for a squad largely compiled with either Marcelo Bielsa or Jesse Marsch in mind, Gracia was keen to mention another he did not introduce.

Georginio Rutter is Leeds’ record signing. So far, their £36 million has bought a player they have only granted a lone start; the forward cannot prove their greatest waste of money this year – not when they are compelled to pay £24.5 million to Jean-Kevin Augustin, who only played 48 minutes for them – but if Gnonto represents their best signing of the season, relegation would render Rutter the worst so far. At 21, he was bought for the future, but the present is all-consuming. There is no such outcry when he is omitted but Rutter has featured still less than Gnonto in April; just 51 minutes. His Leeds career is yet to yield a shot on target in the Premier League, let alone a goal.

But he reflects a wider issue. Leeds’ spending over the last two windows amounts to around £150 million, which could swell by another £30 million if Weston McKennie’s loan is converted into a permanent deal. If much of it was funded by the sales of Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, it was a windfall that should have enabled them to emerge with greater strength across the side.

Wilfried Gnonto is closed down against Liverpool (REUTERS)

Arguably, Leeds have done reasonably in terms of immediate replacements: Tyler Adams has been a combative, influential successor to Phillips; if United are relegated, it could be because the American’s injury could be season-ending. Luis Sinisterra has started to take on Raphinha’s mantle as a goalscoring winger, even if not quite one of the same quality. In addition, the January addition Max Wober has offered improvement at the back; tellingly, he missed the 5-1 thrashing to Crystal Palace and the 6-1 evisceration by Liverpool.

But Rasmus Kristensen has contrived to lose his place to the lower-league stalwart Luke Ayling at right-back. McKennie has been underwhelming. Marc Roca has class in possession but is too weak without it and, like McKennie, needs to play alongside Adams. Brenden Aaronson’s Leeds career started wonderfully with his superlative display against Chelsea but he has not scored since. He was brought on against Leicester to make Leeds compact; instead the Foxes grew more dominant and equalised.

Leeds are yet to see the best from Georginio Rutter (Action Images via Reuters)

Factor in Rutter and it amounts to a decidedly mixed body of work by director of football Victor Orta. Leeds’ recruitment in recent years has long veered between the excellent, such as Raphinha and Jack Harrison, and the execrable, like Kiko Casilla and Junior Firpo.

But now the cost of a mistake or two looms larger; whether the Rutter money in January had gone on a forward a manager would trust, someone else to add ballast to the midfield or a much-needed improvement at left-back, it might have been better spent. But a problem is that the best use of the biggest budget in Leeds’ history is currently languishing unused on the bench.

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