Play-off chasing Leeds United need some reinforcements in January. Phil Hay looks at the areas in which the current Whites squad falls short.
A notorious month, Brian McDermott called it, and Leeds United’s handling of previous January transfer windows deserves that description.
The notoriety of January comes down to inflated fees and rash, impulsive dealing but it is still the key to the second half of each season and an opportunity which Leeds too often allow to pass them by.
They sat tight in 2011 and the Championship play-offs slipped through their fingers. They sold prized assets in 2012 and 2013 and went nowhere with the money.
With another takeover on the horizon – and alongside it the promise of a trickle of fresh funds – Inside Elland Road weighs up the wishlist for a manager whose squad must be tempting him and his club to gamble:
Numbers are not an issue at Elland Road. Over the years, numbers never have been. And with Ross McCormack scoring at a rate of almost one goal a game, the top end of United’s team is one area where McDermott might be willing to cross his fingers. But Dexter Blackstock’s injury means that aside from Matt Smith, the cavalry are light and inactive.
Luke Varney – one appearance since September; Noel Hunt – no appearances since early October; Dominic Poleon – one league start all season; El-Hadji Diouf – absent with leave but presumably heading for a divorce from Leeds next month. The truth about McCormack’s 16 strikes is that his majestic form masks the standard of goalscoring around him.
The addition of another dependable striker who neither compromises McCormack’s game nor puts his nose out of joint seems essential.
Luke Murphy, Alex Mowatt and Rodolph Austin are fit enough and able enough to give McDermott 30 games and more this season.
When that midfield three turn the screw as they did in the second half against Watford last Saturday, the justification for tweaking or breaking up the unit is very flimsy.
Remarkably too, there is presently no threat of suspension to any of them. But remove one cog from that machine and questions arise.
Do Leeds have another player who can work the ball as well as Mowatt and Murphy do? Do they have another footballer with Austin’s physique and engine?
United are heavily over-subscribed in midfield but in a similar way to McCormack, the variety and impact of their alternatives is poorer than it should be. The most positive thing you could have said about Watford last Saturday is that you wouldn’t mind having a Lewis McGugan here.
A spare goalkeeper
Jamie Ashdown has been missing from outset and is due to have an X-ray on his injured toe around Christmas.
Where he goes from there seems to depend on whether the damaged bone in his foot has fused.
McDermott has used Alex Cairns as his substitute keeper behind the excellent Paddy Kenny since mid-April but with due respect to Cairns, the second half of a delicately-balanced Championship year is not the time to be falling back to him.
Unless Ashdown’s comeback is around the corner, another means of covering Kenny would be good – even on loan until the end of the season.
More choice on the bench
It was notable that in a game as frantic and shattering as United’s draw with Watford, McDermott did not make a single substitution.
There were injuries, admittedly – Blackstock, Tom Lees and Scott Wootton all missed the game – but you get the impression that United’s boss is satisfied with his team, rather than his squad. Clubs needs for game-changers during the run-in and other managers have more of those than McDermott. When Gianfranco Zola found a crisis upon him at Elland Road, he plucked Fernando Forestieri from the bench and forced a draw.
The dramatic alterations to the squad at Leeds are going to come next summer as contracts expire in great numbers but depth at present is not the same as strength.
You wonder. For as long as he’s been manager of Leeds, McDermott has bemoaned the complete absence of out-and-out wingers who are good enough to play in the Championship.
Aidan White now thinks of himself as a left-back and Ryan Hall was shown the door last month, leaving virtually no-one who even vaguely matches the players McDermott thrived on at Reading: Jimmy Kebe, Jobi McAnuff, Hal Robson-Kanu and the rest.
But here’s the thing – Leeds are almost 20 games into the season and have comprehensively settled on a wing-back system. McDermott began working on it two months ago and seems content with the way his formation is developing.
It would be highly questionable for him to think again with the season about to turn for home, and rash to revert suddenly to 4-4-2 unless the players he signs next month are truly special.
United need wingers, of course they do.
But the long months of summer might be the best time to deal with that void.