Leeds United: Boss Mac’s facing a tricky balancing act

Brian McDermott.
Brian McDermott.
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Brian McDermott knows he has to sign the right players next month or risk upsetting the balance of the team. Phil Hay reports.

The problem with wingers for Brian McDermott is not what it was two-and-a-half months ago. In October he was crying out for players of that ilk and unable to sign any who met his standards. But with January coming, Leeds United’s manager is more concerned with nurturing a formation which no longer depends on them.

The attempt by Leeds to initiate talks with St Etienne about the availability of Max Gradel suggests that wingers are wanted when the transfer window opens but it also begged the question of how and where their former player of the year would fit in were he to rejoin United from his French club next month.

Gradel is quick and gifted with goals in his feet – a hugely popular figure among United’s rank and file – but a player like him arriving at Elland Road might force McDermott to rethink the strategy that answered his prayers in October. Leeds have played nine times with wing-backs this season and won six of those games. McDermott is in no rush to break his system up.

He feels the same about a squad who, through ups and downs and one particularly poor spell, have earned his respect. McDermott expects to make signings next month and should be helped by the investment which Leeds managing director David Haigh plans to deliver by way of a takeover, but McDermott will not take the start of January as his cue to butcher United’s current group of players.

“The team’s not in a bad way, not by a long shot, and I’m telling you now, you have to be careful in January,” McDermott said. “If you’re not careful, you risk upsetting the balance. It’s very easy to sign a player and make the dressing room worse.

“Character’s the most important thing for me. You need players with the right ability but I don’t think it ever works if you’ve got someone in the dressing room who’s basically a pain. I’ve spoken a lot about how good our dressing room is and you don’t have to take my word for it. Look at the performances and the results. That’s a good squad doing well.

“If I saw a player with massive talent but a bad temperament, I’d never sign him. I took that view early on in my managerial career. Because all that happens somewhere down the line is that difficult characters become a problem and a pain. Life’s too short to be dealing with them.

“The supporters will be aware of that too. The way they are now, they’ll want to see additions but I doubt they’d want us to be breaking up or disregarding the work that’s gone on already this season. Because we’re in a good place.”

Gradel’s temperament was famously fiery, earning him the nickname ‘Mad Max’ at Leeds. He did temporary damage to his reputation with a rash sending off against Bristol Rovers on the last day of the 2009-10 season – a day when United saved his skin by winning promotion from League One regardless – but those who worked with him from then on talked of a footballer who grew up quickly and matured. He was United’s player of the year in 2011.

McDermott spoke highly of Gradel during a tour of the children’s wards at Leeds General Infirmary on Tuesday, responding to news that Leeds had approached St Etienne about Gradel’s availability for the second time in a year.

Two months ago, the Leeds boss made an attempt to sign Luciano Becchio – another former United forward who retains firm popularity in Leeds – and gave the impression that he was not adverse to signing players with recent history at Elland Road.

But Gradel has suffered from knee injuries since leaving United for St Etienne in 2011 and McDermott voiced his concern about agreeing transfers on the basis of “sentiment”. Gradel might equally feel that the French first division is a better stage for him in a year when he is competing for a place in the Ivory Coast’s World Cup squad.

“I’d have brought Becchio back earlier in the season if I could have done,” McDermott said. “It was the right thing to do at the time and that’s the point – we have to do what’s right for Leeds United in 2013 and 2014.

“The question I try to ask is ‘is it right?’ I’ve got a list and two or three players who I think could make a difference next month and I’ll put them to the board. But at the same time, I’ve got a list of players who are working for the shirt and doing pretty well. It’s disrespectful to the players here to talk about people who might be coming in and have nothing to do with us yet.”

It is disrespectful in McDermott’s eyes because Leeds have made good work of the season so far, despite worries about the depth of his resources prior to the first game against Brighton in August.

Eighteen of their 33 points have come through a formation reliant on wing-backs. They have also come from a possible 27. McDermott was unfamiliar with the system when he first began working on it but his players adapted quickly and routed Birmingham City on the afternoon when their manager first employed it.

“I’ve changed the system three times since I came here,” McDermott said. “It’s been quite tough. At the moment we’re doing well with three at the back and I like three at the back. It’s a good system. It always gives you two strikers and you always have three in midfield. It means you don’t get overloaded in those areas. A lot of people will be looking at our system and thinking ‘that’s a good way to play.’

“We’re getting results and it’s working for us so I have to be mindful of that. People always say I’m a manager who only plays with out-and-out wingers but that’s wrong. I haven’t got any so we play with wing-backs. Basically I play with whatever systems suits Leeds and gets us points.”

Three more were earned at Doncaster Rovers last weekend as United withstood fierce wind and a second-half onslaught to win 3-0. With a rare away victory recorded, they return to Elland Road this weekend to play a Barnsley side who have a new manager in Danny Wilson but are lodged at the bottom of the Championship.

“Some people said we were lucky to get three goals at Doncaster and maybe it wasn’t the right score,” McDermott said.

“But we got three goals because of two fantastic finishes in the second half and we were resilient. We deserved to win.”

Chris Wood controls a high ball against Fulham at Elland Road on Tuesday night. PIC: Bruce Rollinson

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