Football thrives in its periods of stability and it is inevitable that pressure builds whenever predictable operating conditions are altered. Such changes can be self-inflicted, or they can emanate from the impact of external factors and external sources.
As much as the January transfer window is unique, it is also predictable as an annual occurrence in the football calendar that must be anticipated and planned around.
For a while Leeds United’s transfer dealings looked destined to define Victor Orta’s tenure as the current Director of Football at Elland Road. The recruitment specialist with the likes of Sevilla, Elche, Zenit and Middlesborough on his illustrious CV, was under immense pressure to bring in a new striker that many believed was the missing piece in the jigsaw to fire a successful promotion bid, back to the Premier League, under Marcelo Bielsa.
Speaking exclusively to The Scouted Hub, Orta explains, that there is a fundamental difference between recruiting in preseason and adding personnel in the winter window.
“When you are in a summer market the priority is quality or quantity. When you are in January, the priority is availability. And then you need to detect the availability, that is not easy; you cannot start in December to detect availability.”
Prior planning and preparation can reduce pressure, but that will only get you so far at the highest level of football. This is an industry that has its own remarkable and breath-taking pace. Outcomes and options can literally change minute-by-minute in January as all sides play their cards close to their chests and pursue their own, sometimes extremely singular agendas. Orta famously displayed his frustration and anger last season, as a deadline day deal for winger Daniel James fell through at the eleventh hour, but it was in no way an untypical incident in the fevered atmosphere of a period in the season that few football people relish due to its fundamental volatility.
The January window just past, merely confirms the impression that uncertainty is the winter window’s only constant. For Orta, preparation and planning were never the issue: “I have a player that the second week of December is really available for us, near to closing (the deal), and the second week of January he’s not available because he gave a nice assist against Leicester.”
The pressure did relent, however and Jean-Kévin Augustin’s arrival at Elland Road, even on loan, is a coup, make no mistake. And specifically so with the Championship side facing sizeable competition for the signature of the 22-year-old RB Leipzig striker.
“When I have the minimal hope about Augustin in terms of availability, I say wow, if there is a minimum chance, I want to explore. And to be honest, I feel proud that this has happened.”
Expectancy, a factor that neither Victor Orta nor Marcelo can control, hangs over this great club. It is a fog that only promotion will penetrate, and an external factor that ratchets up significant pressure every season that Leeds remain in England’s second tier.
As far as their passionate fans and large sections of the media are concerned, Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds should be playing Premier League football next season. So, how then does Victor Orta, along with his team of scouts and heads of recruitment, prepare for the Premier League in a world made uncertain by Covid-19 – while, at the same time, planning for the unthinkable and the possibility of another season in the second tier?
“You need to have the responsibility to work for two clubs; it’s tough, it’s really tough, but to be honest, it always happens in football”, Orta says. “I remember in Sevilla we were working and had different budgets depending on if you are going to be in the Champions League or not. I was in Elche and we are looking to survive in La Liga or relegation. I was in Middlesbrough, the same. Nobody can predict.”
Responsibility is assigned to those of high rank in football clubs. It is an obligation to perform and also an impossible burden to many who assume it, due simply to the glare of public scrutiny that accompanies every single decision.
Orta, though, is sanguine about a level of attention that simply comes with the territory at every single football club. It is also, of course, a position that he is accustomed to after spells at Sevilla, Zenit St. Petersburg, Elche CF, and Middlesbrough, five clubs with their own unique expectations and physical, cultural and financial constraints. With broad shoulders, Victor Orta stoically accepts the responsibilities of his current role, just as he bears his share of responsibility for the apparent failings at his former club Middlesbrough.
Time regularly exposes the truth, of course, and its passage has somewhat vindicated a lot of the Spaniard’s work at the Riverside Stadium.
Victor Orta’s sojourn on Teeside ultimately ended in relegation and his subsequent departure; yet he will admit now that there were arguably too many signings in a short period. It is something that other comparably ambitious clubs have also fallen foul of – Fulham, most notable among them. He claims now that there were loans from the previous season that needed replacing and, signing by signing, that time does reflect more fondly upon his work at Boro than it initially appeared to do in the immediate aftermath of relegation.
“I think we made a lot of good things in Middlesbrough, and you talk about two players now, like Marten De Roon: near to being in the quarter final of the Champions League, it’s all happening. Adama Traoré can be the most exciting prospect now in Spain. And not only this, even a lot of players that can have a real impact on the team, I feel really proud of my work in Middlesbrough because I was honest and I was trying to improve the club.”
Leeds United needed a new head coach following Paul Heckingbottom’s departure from the club in June 2018, and Orta once again endeavoured to tempt Marcelo Bielsa, a man that had previously eluded him on numerous occasions, to the point of obsession. Victor Orta got his man as the lure of Leeds United and the history attached to the club was too big to ignore. The tipping point may well have been Marcelo Bielsa’s long-held ambition to work in England.
By any measure, the Argentine’s impact on the club is remarkable. His dramatic arrival on West Yorkshire was preceded only by his Quixotic reputation for eccentricity, obsession, and unquestionable genius, backed with a stubborn philosophy that requires unwavering backing – or else. Bielsa’s coaching qualities were never questioned, and glowing references from names such as Mauricio Pochettino and Pep Guardiola speak for themselves as tributes to his influence on their careers. And Orta’s long pursuit of Bielsa was testament to the high regard in which Bielsa is held throughout the highest levels of the game.
Bielsa is infectious. His apparent obsession to raise – and then maintain – standards has dragged the whole club towards higher levels of outputs and expectations, establishing standards that see Leeds seemingly destined to return to the Premier League. As Director of Football, Orta will rightly be judged on firstly attaining promotion and secondly, the success of the player signings made during his charge at Elland Road, but his impact on the appointment of Bielsa should not be forgotten.
Orta once again smiles, when considering Marcelo Bielsa, his most significant signing to date: “His knowledge is amazing, and to be honest, he makes you better because he is always trying to find perfection, and when you have these people around you, it improves your level but not only professionally, even personally, and then it’s a real challenge. Outside of the results, Marcelo Bielsa is giving a legacy to this club in terms of increasing the standards of all the people around. And I feel really proud of this because he is leaving a legacy for us.”
Orta says that he also palpably feels the responsibility to deliver Premier League football for a club starved of success for most of the 21st Century, and for a fan base for whom the red letter days of David O’Leary’s ultimately vainglorious era have become the stuff of near-legend. This club demands and expects Premier League football, and over the last two years, more so than many, it has been an unfulfilled promise; but promise itself cannot be the end to this particular story in West Yorkshire.
“For me, it’s three generations of frustrations: the people over 50 that watched this club dominate England and for them now the Championship is difficult; the people around 30-50 that watched the semi-final of the Champions League and League One and then, all the young people that perhaps still haven’t watched one game in the Premier League.”
He says: “The responsibility is to give back to the people, all my effort and then the results talk or not. This is my main goal in this club, because in the end, this team, this club, is a Premier League club, and we need to have this responsibility to get back. And it’s true it is not easy, but we need to assume this responsibility.”