Nagging Daniel Farke doubts leave Leeds United looking to a summer with nowhere to hide

-Credit: (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
-Credit: (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)


It wasn’t meant to be for Leeds United, in the end. The glorious colour and backing of their city, their white wall, wasn’t enough to keep out Adam Armstrong with the game’s best moment of quality.

They virtually conquered the Championship, including its top two, but Southampton have proven their kryptonite, doing the treble over them. Wembley finals like these turn on small margins, whether that’s Ethan Ampadu’s split-second decision to abandon his post or the millimetres of crossbar denying Daniel James.

None of that will console a club sitting devastated this evening. There was always the possibility, after the delayed takeover and disrupted summer, it would take a second bite of the cherry under Daniel Farke and so it has proved.

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This was a final they never really took by the throat, an opportunity that passed them by, though the postmortem over the coming days will likely loop back to avoiding the play-offs altogether in the first place. This summer’s party line may tread a familiar path at Elland Road. As a chief executive once said, ‘We are not messing around with the play-offs again.’

The club is, undeniably in a better place than it was 12 months ago as it prepared for relegation at home to Tottenham Hotspur. Joel Robles, Robin Koch, Rasmus Kristensen, Max Wober, Adam Forshaw, Jack Harrison, Weston McKennie, Rodrigo and Brenden Aaronson, led by Sam Allardyce, watched as the club tumbled out of the top flight.

United were at their lowest ebb in years with an outgoing, ageing manager, a stack of failed transfers on high wages with no resale value, and a litany of loan clauses that would hamstring summer spending power. Chickens had come home to roost on two years of diabolical decision-making with the pieces falling to the floor for the next administration to pick up.

Relegated, Leeds could not even make a quick start on the recovery plan. A takeover agreement would not be reached until June 9 and 49ers would not have control until July 17, less than three weeks before the start of the season.

Farke was interviewed by Paraag Marathe and Angus Kinnear for a job they technically did not have the final say on, as Andrea Radrizzani’s name remained above the door. The pitch was as much Kinnear’s as it was Farke’s when they met at a London hotel last summer.

The likes of Graham Potter and Brendan Rodgers had been considered, but neither showed interest in the role, while Carlos Corberan was briefly courted before he signed a new contract at The Hawthorns. Ultimately, it came down to Scott Parker or Farke.

The former was a one-way, traditional interview experience, but Farke wanted more from Marathe, Peter Lowy and Kinnear. Two of the previous five Championship titles sit on his mantelpiece, he didn’t feel he needed to prove anything.

Farke had a track record, manner and Premier League desire that impressed the Whites hierarchy. He saw himself as a top-flight boss and, well, we will have to wait a little longer for him to prove it.

That has proven to be the first in a long line of sensible decisions under this ownership, if 90-point seasons without promotion count as some degree of success. There was little fanfare or glitz in the German’s arrival, but low-key and functional is how Marathe likes to play it.

Give Farke the squad he ended the campaign with at the start of the summer, with a full pre-season, no mutinies or enforced loan deals and they probably win the league. That wouldn’t have been a shock to anyone either. This is a group which absolutely should be competing for honours at the top of the table.

However, the disruption and contempt he had to face from day one cannot be ignored. As he has now told us, with hindsight, promotion as late as September felt like a pipe dream to Farke. This was not a settled group Farke came into the season on a level par with. United were six over going into the first hole and had their manager swinging through the trees.

It didn’t feel like they had even started putting eagles until late October. There were bursts of form and one-off performances, but for an Ipswich Town away there was a Southampton away. Carrow Road was thrilling, but the fact is they were 2-0 down at the break and staring down the barrel.

All the while, Farke’s calm, never-too-high, never-too-low demeanour was keeping everyone, from Georginio Rutter to the media, in check. ‘This was never meant to be easy, but this is a young team, we are growing together and I believe in where we are going.’ Or words to that effect.

Wilfried Gnonto and Luis Sinisterra were serving the manager curveballs until the final minutes of the summer. Farke managed to both appease supporters with frank explanations and keep his dressing room onside without betraying their confidence. The Italian was reincorporated and became a crucial boost in 2024’s unbeaten streak, while the Colombian was replaced with a promotion-winning winger and a fraction over £20m.

He has talked about it at length this season, but this is a very young squad that has won promotion. So few of them have had full campaigns as regular starters, let alone as promotion contenders where every slip-up hurts. That, you would imagine, be again his line across this coming summer.

Ethan Ampadu, 23, averaged 26 starts across his last three seasons, all ending in relegation. Rutter, 22, averaged seven starts across his last four seasons. Joe Rodon, 26, averaged 12 starts over his last six campaigns.

Archie Gray, 18, had never played senior football before. Crysencio Summerville, 22, averaged nine starts a year since his 16-year-old debut at Dordrecht. Pascal Struijk, 24, averaged 18 starts across four years. Ilia Gruev, 24, averaged 15 starts across his last two years in Germany. Gnonto, 20, averaged eight starts a year for the past four, going back to his Zurich days.

Illan Meslier was coaxed back into Golden Glove form from the crumbling figure Allardyce left behind. Ampadu and Rodon have been rock solid. Gray has been eased into Gareth Southgate’s comments.

Rutter, at his best, has left defenders too embarrassed to go home to their families. Summerville has delivered on the promise he always showed in United’s under-21 ranks and became the best player in the league.

Daniel James has shown prowess in the final third Manchester United and Leeds fans never thought they would see from the Road Runner. Farke has fostered a winning mentality, reshaped the squad and put it into a position where he will hope to go one better next season.

Tactically, he has been criticised at times this season and Sunday’s defeat will not ease those grievances. Farke has carried the swagger of someone with nothing to prove in the Championship, which is quite fair given his record, but this summer, a full summer under his control, will leave nowhere to hide going into August.

Finances will dictate a lot of the decisions which need to be made, but Farke must retain what he can from this squad and somehow improve on the weak points.