carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Trading Places: Competing on and off the pitch

Alan Smith cut a lone figure on 2nd May 2004, the Rothwell born Leeds United player had just played his part in a 4-1 defeat to Bolton Wanderers. A loss which confirmed relegation from the English Premier League and ushered the final push in dismantling one of the finest home-grown teams of the early noughties. The expensive and extravagant behaviour eventually unravelled, and Leeds United plummeted further than Louis Winthorpe III. They would not be back at the top table for over a decade.

Published on 07 Oct 2020

Indeed, after a 16-year absence, Leeds United finally returned to the English Premier League - a very different beast from which they dropped in 2004. Now they are back feeling nostalgic and relishing the opportunity to maintain EPL status. On-the-pitch they have given some inspiring performances against leading clubs Liverpool FC and Manchester City FC, and are currently sitting in 8th position. However, they have also taken the competitive spirit to the summer transfer window. 

While, much has been and will be written, about the who, what and how much? We take a slightly different perspective. Whilst others are concerned with stripping context out of transfer market, we are obsessed with putting it back in. We argue that it is the structure and a clubs position in that structure, which is vital for sustaining premier league status.   As such, we provide some brief insight into the structure of the EPL’s summer transfer window and the position Leeds United have managed to create.


This network map visualises the transfer activity (not including loans) of the summer transfer window, which irrespective of the ongoing pandemic still shows the signs of a healthy market place. The clubs are sized on the number of ‘purchases’ (in-degree), and coloured darker purple reflects a higher number of sales (out-degree). Overall, there is a tendency within this transfer window for EPL clubs to engage in internal transactions. To a certain degree, this signals an increased trust mechanism, since players may have already proven themselves and are known, reducing the information gap.

Interestingly, Leeds United have been significantly more engaged than other recently promoted teams, positioning themselves in the market similar to Chelsea FC and Manchester City FC. This demonstrates how Leeds United have adopted a similar buying behaviour, albeit not to the economic extremes. A consequence, from our network perspective, is this positions them well for future activity, demonstrating their ability and willingness to compete within a very competitive market off-the-pitch.

Their light purple colour suggests they are not selling players at anything like the same rate as their peers - or at all. Consequently, it seems Leeds United are increasing depth in the squad, building a squad for the future. Given they could have sold players to Championship clubs, they instead have sought to stabilise the club and the inner workings of the structure. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if their selling behaviour increases, positioning themselves in both buying and selling markets. Whether or not Leeds United's £90m investment in assets pays off will be seen over the remainder of the season. Still, early signs show they are willing to compete both on- and off-the-pitch.

Time will tell whether they are still “feeling good”, come May.

Dr Alexander Bond

Senior Lecturer / Carnegie School Of Sport

Alexander Bond is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Management and leads the MSc Sport Business Management. He also leads the Management and Governance Theme for the Research Centre of Social Justice in Sport and Society.