The performances at Derby and Sunderland convinced Neil Redfearn a new formation and players were needed at Leeds. Phil Hay reports.
Early last summer, before the appointment of David Hockaday as head coach, a senior member of Leeds United’s squad was told by Massimo Cellino that the diamond midfield would most likely be the formation of choice at Elland Road this season.
It’s no secret that the club’s owner likes that system but little by little the commitment to it has bled United of form and points.
The second half of Sunday’s FA Cup tie at Sunderland offered another way forward, consigning the diamond to a quiet corner.
Away to Bolton Wanderers this weekend, the tactics used by Neil Redfearn on Wearside are likely to be employed again, and potentially to Cellino’s satisfaction.
There is growing acceptance at Leeds of the need for changes in personnel, tactics and player recruitment. The Championship table, showing Leeds in 20th, will not reverse itself.
The top-heavy Christmas tree adopted at the Stadium of Light – 4-2-3-1, with Mirco Antenucci alone up front – is a replica of the formation Bolton rely on.
They have played like that more often than not since Neil Lennon replaced Dougie Freedman as manager in October and the club’s results speak for themselves.
Bolton were bottom of the league when Lennon came on board. His first 13 games yielded 24 points, moving them seven places clear of the bottom three and five above Leeds.
The diamond midfield was not a strict edict from Cellino. Sources close to Redfearn say he used it willingly as caretaker and has done so since his permanent appointment as head coach. It worked perfectly on occasions - at home to Huddersfield Town and Derby County - but proved highly ineffectual on others. A tired loss at Pride Park last week brought Redfearn to the conclusion that he lacked the quality of squad to refresh his line-up and keep that formation intact.
In the second half at Sunderland, the width provided by Casper Sloth and Brian Montenegro – two players who have been peripheral for many weeks - gave United the penetration they have lacked since the end of November. Antenucci’s tap-in at Ipswich Town a month ago is their only goal in open play for six games, and United failed to win once in December.
Redfearn said the 4-2-3-1 system allowed United to “defend with more width and attack with more width”, giving his full-backs scope to get forward as usual but freeing them of sole responsibility for creativity out wide.
Redfearn is likely to recall Sam Byram, Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt at the Reebok Stadium - three players rested at the Stadium of Light - but Sloth in particular has a claim to a second chance. Montenegro should receive a place in Redfearn’s 18-man squad even if he fails to make the starting line-up.
The tactical shift notwithstanding, recruitment in the transfer market is United’s best route out of trouble, though the club are not expected to complete any signings until after Saturday’s trip to Bolton.
Redfearn was hopeful of seeing new players arrive this week but Cellino has been in Miami for the past fortnight and is not due to arrive back in England until Friday. Though discussions about potential recruits have continued in the past 48 hours, incoming deals are unlikely to be signed off until the Italian returns from the USA.
Redfearn has been pressing for players with proven Championship experience or a track record of playing at a high level in England. Luciano Becchio, the Argentinian forward who left Elland Road for Norwich City in 2013, is one of several options put forward by United’s head coach in discussions about January signings.
Leeds’ sporting director, Nicola Salerno, has identified alternatives strikers and the club are still pursuing Sassuolo’s Leonardo Pavoletti, a 6’2” striker. The club also see Bulgarian Andrey Galabinov - a striker at Serie B club Livorno - as a potential answer to their lack of physical presence up front.
In midfield, much of their attention has focused on Rene Krhin, the 24-year-old Slovenian who is on Inter Milan’s books and being touted for a half-season loan in England.
Leeds were linked yesterday with Granddi N’Goyi, a Frenchman who was capped at under-21 level and is on the fringes of the first team at Palermo, but Redfearn was enthused at the Stadium of Light by the performance of two existing United midfielders, Rodolph Austin and Luke Murphy.
Their contribution to a lively second half on Sunday could delay what appeared to be inevitable departures from Elland Road this month.
Brighton and Millwall are keen on Austin and Leeds were open to the idea of moving him on before their cup defeat at Sunderland. Murphy was made available in the most recent emergency loan market and did not figure in Redfearn’s plans, but Redfearn implied on Sunday that the 25-year-old was back in the reckoning on the strength of his first outing in more than months.
Outgoing transfers from Elland Road are also planned with Noel Hunt, Scott Wootton and Nicky Ajose among the senior players who Leeds intend to part company with.
Wootton is on loan at Rotherham United until the end of this week but Hunt and Ajose have now completed temporary spells with Ipswich Town and Crewe Alexandra respectively. Ajose is just six months into a three-year deal at United but the summer signing from Peterborough is already surplus to requirements.
Crewe, however, hope to re-sign a forward who scored three times in five games for them.
The League One club’s manager, Steve Davis, said: “I’ve spoken to Nicky and I’ve spoken to Neil Redfearn and it was positive.
“Leeds know that we want to keep Nicky longer and Nicky wants to stay.”
Hunt, meanwhile, is believed to be in negotiations to terminate his contract.
The striker’s two-year deal at Elland Road is due to expire in the summer and he has not played for Leeds since the opening week of the season.