There is room at Leeds United for four new signings next month – and more again if the club can cut certain players from their squad – but in the circumstances they would settle for two.
Back when the summer transfer window closed, two signings in January was more than Leeds expected to make. The club were resigned to an embargo as punishment for losses of £23m last season and only in the past six weeks did it become clear that the Football League’s regulations are full of holes.
Leeds have been assessing the transfer market since the latter stages of October, the point at which their owner, Massimo Cellino, began to realise that the League’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) penalty was not an embargo in the strictest sense.
There are limits to the amount of money Leeds can spend and the number of players they can recruit but they are permitted to maintain a squad of 24 players who are either over 21 or have made five competitive appearances for the club. Twenty of the professionals at Thorp Arch fall into that criteria. Two of them, Noel Hunt and Scott Wootton, are elsewhere on loan.
More room will be created in the squad if other players depart before January ends. Leeds were ready to listen to offers for Luke Murphy during the recent emergency loan window and will make him available again next month. David Norris, Zac Thompson and Steve Morison have also been deemed surplus to requirements.
United, nonetheless, have two priorities – a striker in a different guise to any of those already on their books and at least one central midfielder to reinforce and tighten up the pivotal area of Neil Redfearn’s team. Saturday’s defeat to Fulham, Leeds’ 10th loss of the season, underlined Redfearn’s belief that his inexperienced team “need help”.
The club’s head coach bemoaned a lack of “genuine width” over the weekend and said a squad built to suit a diamond midfield was lacking in versatility. “Sometimes the problem for me is changing it from the bench,” Redfearn said. “We’ve got one or two options but we do lack genuine width. It’s difficult to go 4-3-3 or to use a flat 4-4-2 if we need to.
“But the overriding feeling is that the lads need some help. It’s a young side and we need some Championship experience down the middle of the team. That’s an important factor for us.”
Leeds’ established style, with Lewis Cook as a defensive midfielder and Adryan at the front tip of the diamond, has not been a problem at home. Fulham negated it and worked it out on Saturday but United’s results at Elland Road have been reliable.
Away from home, and in the face of seven league defeats, the need for a revised strategy has become obvious, as has the need for new signings in specific areas of the team. Leeds have no fewer than five forwards but most are of a similar size and build. The sale of Matt Smith to Fulham and the failure of Morison to stick in either the starting line-up or United’s matchday squads has made a rugged, imposing goalscorer a key target next month.
Cellino came within hours of signing Leonardo Pavoletti from Sassuolo in September and is likely to revisit that option again in January. Pavoletti, 26, has been prolific in Italy’s lower leagues and scored his first Serie A goal for Sassuolo against Palermo over the weekend. He remains on the fringes of the club’s starting line-up, however.
His proposed move to Elland Road in the summer ended in peculiar circumstances. Pavoletti emerged as a late target for Leeds but, with Cellino abroad in Miami on deadline day, silence developed and the deal ground to a halt in the final hour of FIFA’s window. Staff at Elland Road were prepared to announce a last-minute arrival but saw 11pm come and go without further news.
Sassuolo’s chief executive, Nereo Bonato, claimed afterwards that the transfer had collapsed over United’s insistence on signing Pavoletti permanently. Sassuolo were unwilling to discuss anything other than a loan. “Leeds wanted him outright,” Bonato was quoted as saying. “But we have always been clear.”
Pavoletti reportedly earns in the region of £5,000 a week at Sassuolo. His wage would fit comfortably into Football League rules preventing clubs under an FFP embargo from paying players more than £600,000 a year – the equivalent of over £10,000 a week. A loan might be more appealing to Cellino with Leeds banned from paying fees for any of the players they recruit in January.
Cellino and his sporting director, Nicola Salerno, have looked at other strikers aside from Pavoletti. They also have ideas about the sort of proven player who would help and support a midfield in which Tommaso Bianchi at 26 is by far the most experienced footballer. Cellino has said more than once this season that Leeds are a team “without a general”.
Redfearn is involved in those discussions and insisted recently that he was happy with a situation in which his owner suggested and recommended targets. “He knows his football,” United’s head coach said, “and if you look at the players who’ve come in so far, a lot of them have been very good.” Redfearn will still look for someone with a background in English football, though. Leeds were heavily linked with Leicester City’s Anthony Knockaert towards the end of November.
Sources at Elland Road insist that signings will be made next month, despite United’s embargo and despite the fact that Cellino is embroiled in an appeal against a Football League directive banning him from running the club. The 58-year-old, who has been ordered to resign from the board at Leeds until March of next year due to a tax conviction, submitted his appeal on Monday night and expects to be told by the end of this week when his challenge will be heard.
At the outset, the Football League gave Cellino 28 days to step down – a deadline which falls on December 29 – but said it would attempt to have his appeal decided within that timeframe. It is not yet clear if the governing body will able to meet that deadline.
In the meantime, United are continuing to finalise the protracted appointment of Steve Thompson as Redfearn’s assistant.
Thompson – a first-team coach at Huddersfield Town – was due to be offered a contract by Leeds this week with a view to tying up his arrival before Saturday’s game at Nottingham Forest.