The gap to the play-offs is nine points and Steve Evans’ side of the deal with Massimo Cellino has faltered slightly but Leeds United are pressing ahead in the transfer market regardless.
It might occur to Cellino that even if this season cannot be saved, avoiding work on the squad at Elland Road is merely a case of delaying the inevitable.
Cellino remains in Miami and did not see the club’s draw with MK Dons in the flesh, and there is still no definitive message about whether the Italian remains open to a sale of Leeds, but the message from Evans about investment in players is strengthened less by the Championship table than it was by a performance like Saturday’s.
“We were poor for 90 per cent of it,” Evans said. “Five letters, starts with the letter ‘s’ – work it out for yourself. We weren’t good and the opposition weren’t good either. It wasn’t a game for the purists.”
United’s head coach has rarely been pushed into speaking like that, or not in December when a six-game unbeaten run put him in line for the manager-of-the-month award, but he is in the habit of saying it as he sees it. Evans wants signings to keep alive the prospect of competing for the play-offs but when push comes to shove, Evans wants signings. If Cellino is willing to throw money at the squad – in spite of the suggestion two months ago that United’s owner was in the sellers’ ring – there is justification for entering the transfer market either way.
“I’m know I’m going to be allowed to make signings because people are working to make it happen,” said Evans, who promised Cellino he would have Leeds within six points of the top six by January. “I had a full update from the president on three or four players I’m keen to bring here and he’s as keen as I am. It has to fit financially. We won’t be held to ransom and we can’t be chasing wild dreams. But whether we’d drawn or lost this game, we need to strengthen the group.”
The visit of MK Dons was a moment when Leeds, after a fine run through a gruelling spell of fixtures, ran out of steam, imagination and began to run out of options. Chris Wood was injured and Souleymane Doukara took his place up front, negating the recent rise in his reputation by drifting through the match as he has his career in England. Shots on target were non-existent and it took an inexplicable own goal from Antony Kay to earn Leeds a point with two minutes of normal time to play.
Wood, who has eight goals this season but has been criticised for his finishing and his impact in general, was made in absentia to look like a fairly crucial cog. Evans, who has enquired about Stoke City’s Peter Crouch and wants to sign Norwich City’s Kyle Lafferty, discovered on Saturday that he has no real alternative to Wood in a system which uses only one forward. Two might have made a difference against MK Dons but Leeds were flat and withdrawn from the start. Sol Bamba’s mis-hit pass in the first minute was a warning about the tough afternoon ahead of him and United’s defence as a whole.
“It’s amazing,” Evans said when asked about the loss of Wood to a minor hamstring strain last week. “When you take a good player out of your team, what was looking (to the public) like not such a good player suddenly becomes a great player.
“I’d like another option. I’d prefer that can play that role on his own but also play in a two if he needs to. There’s a couple we’re trying to bring in and if we end up with two strikers in the door then great but if we end up with one of the two, I’ll be happy with that.
“I’m not disappointed with the club’s approaches so far or the status of the updates I’m getting. It’s exactly where I thought it would be. But we want to do deals sooner rather than later.”
What Evans cannot buy, or what money cannot achieve alone, is a change in the mental block which he says is bothering his squad. Leeds beat Hull City at the start of December and ran Derby County close to defeat last Tuesday night. They outplayed Wolverhampton Wanderers and took points off Preston North End and Nottingham Forest, a collection of mid-table clubs or better.
To date, however, they have outmaneuvered only one of the teams inside the Championship’s bottom six; an unconvincing win at MK Dons in September. Saturday’s 1-1 draw was slightly reminiscent of a 1-0 defeat to Rotherham United in November, save for the fact that United had chances against Rotherham. MK Dons opened the scoring after half-an-hour when Bamba and Liam Cooper failed to play Nicky Maynard offside and the striker’s cut-back from the right wing gave Rob Hall a chance to slot the ball past Silvestri, but Leeds had chanced their arm before then. Charlie Taylor might have conceded a penalty for a sliding tackle on Hall inside Silvestri’s box. Bamba was only booked after bringing down Maynard as the last man. “I think Bamba got away with it,” Karl Robinson said. “It’s a definite penalty too.”
The last time MK Dons won away from home this season, and the only time, was against Evans’ Rotherham side on the first day. It annoyed him to see two points go begging, so soon after a compelling display against Derby. “It must be something to do with mental ability – to beat teams who you should be expecting to beat,” he said. “The difference with the top teams, like Bournemouth and Watford last year, is that they turn up and it doesn’t matter if they’re playing the teams at the bottom or the big clubs. They have a mental application to deal with it. We look like we’ve got a nick in that chamber, where we come down a yard. It’s a problem.”
MK Dons played as sensible visiting teams play at Elland Road; deep, in a compact shape and looking for any chance to go up against United’s defence with pace and numbers. Maynard almost killed the game on 68 minutes after mugging Cooper and producing a shot which Silvestri did brilliantly to keep out of the bottom corner. After starting with Doukara, Evans had Mirco Antenucci and Lee Erwin up front by the end, Taylor on the left wing and Lewie Coyle at left-back, making his home debut. His own body language did not portray much hope.
From nowhere, and with two minutes to go, Leeds got a break. A corner from Taylor was cleared back out to him and his cross from the left gave Kay the chance of an easy clearance. The former Barnsley defender miscued it horribly with his head and David Martin, the MK Dons goalkeeper, reacted slowly as the ball clipped the inside of a post and rolled into the net. “Antony asked for 11 tickets before the game,” Robinson said. “I bet he wishes he hadn’t now! Words can’t really explain that goal.”
A trait of Evans during his time as head coach has been a tendency to avoid fudging the issue when his team plays poorly. “It’ll be a long night for me,” he said at full-time. “I pride myself on a team’s performance, not always on the result, and we’ve not done our jobs, me or the players.
“We’ve let ourselves down and the club down but we’ve been in good form and on the front foot for a while. Now we just need two or three players.”