Leeds United: Whites’ push for top six is out of the window

Mustapha Carayol, Liam Bridcutt and Toumani Diagouraga

Mustapha Carayol, Liam Bridcutt and Toumani Diagouraga

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Leeds United didn’t exactly ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the January transfer window, but will have to pull out quite a few more stops come summer 2016 if they are to break into the top six. Phil Hay reports.

There was a definite sense in late December of Leeds United clutching at straws by talking about the play-offs. The January transfer window did nothing to suggest the club thought differently. Faced with an outside gamble, they held back from throwing the kitchen sink and going all-in.

Steve Evans said three signings would keep him happy and United’s head coach got his three, including the extension of Liam Bridcutt’s emergency loan from Sunderland. He is pleased with those transfers, pleased with the calibre of player signed, but January was no overhaul of Evans’ squad. However far forward the club moved last month, the summer ahead will call for a big advance.

This window, like the last, will be judged most effectively with the benefit of hindsight. The business completed under Uwe Rosler before this season began earned Leeds due credit – more logical and methodical than many windows before it – but it is clear, on reflection, that the club should have gone further. They were short of strikers before the turn of the year, weak in the centre of defence and existing with one recognised left-back; lucky to lose Charlie Taylor for only six weeks to glandular fever. The resources at Evans’ disposal are those of a manager of a club in Leeds’ position – 14th in the Championship, betwixt and between the top six and relegation. Give or take, that position is where they will finish. January saw to that.

Where Evans succeeded was in signing players in positions where Leeds needed players. The existing glut of midfielders at Elland Road did not change the fact that among them no complementary two or three existed. Bridcutt was a necessary line of defence and has been a highly effective one. Leeds have lost three games in 14 with him in the team; two in 13 since his debut at Queens Park Rangers.

As Saturday’s win at Bolton Wanderers demonstrated, the purchase of Toumani Diagouraga – a strong, rangey midfielder whose Championship calibre was clear to anyone who had seen him previously – should free Bridcutt from a perfunctory job and give him the flexibility to stray further up the field. Between them, the pair make room for an out-and-out number 10, a player Leeds don’t have but a crucial position in a team that looks handicapped whenever Evans uses two strikers up front.

Mustapha Carayol was more of a punt but a calculated one all the same. Evans was lacking wingers or wingers already acclimatised to the Championship. Carayol has an enigmatic air about him but he can finish, he can run and there is a feeling that he could be more consistent with the right application. At worst he will deliver from time-to-time. That has been the glaring contrast between this transfer window and others under Massimo Cellino; in the incoming line there was no Botaka, no Erwin, no Adryan, no Cani. Leeds limited their bets but made them safe. It is likely that Bridcutt, Diagouraga and Carayol are players who Evans – or another head coach for that matter – would want to keep.

Leeds will retain Diagouraga at the end of this season. He is their player, signed permanently for £575,000 and tied down for two-and-a-half years. In the cases of Bridcutt and Carayol, the club have less control. Both are on loan at Elland Road and remain under contract at Sunderland and Middlesbrough beyond the summer. The total movement at Leeds in January, excluding the peripheral Tommaso Bianchi, was three in and one out. If Bridcutt and Carayol fall short or slip away, the figure will equate to one in, one out; Sam Byram sold to West Ham United in a £3.7m deal, Diagouraga signed for close to £600,000. It should not be forgotten that in October, after Leeds buckled against Blackburn Rovers, Evans talked about needing “five or six to turn it around.”

Byram’s departure was the one near-certainty in January, a sale which relied solely on another club producing a reasonable bid. Leeds did not disguise their plan to sell him but as Evans and Cellino promised they would, the club drew the line at the right-back.

Evans spoke last month of bids “in excess of £30m” for players on the books at Leeds.

By far the strongest approach was from Bournemouth for Lewis Cook but Leeds succeeded in pricing them out of a deal. Bournemouth offered Lee Tomlin as a makeweight but failed to twist United’s arm, despite Evans’ high opinion of him. Tomlin went on loan to Bristol City last week. There were other, more obscure approaches: firm bids from Italy for Giuseppe Bellusci, including one from Serie A club Verona. Cellino said on Sunday night that after a long run in United’s side, Bellusci had chosen to sit tight. “He stays in Leeds, his choice is to stay in Leeds,” Cellino said. “He had three teams in Serie A (trying to sign him).”

Mirco Antenucci felt differently and was pushing to leave before last night’s deadline. Leeds were unwilling to let him go. Antenucci is out of contract in the summer and unlikely to receive an extension on the same terms. His partner recently gave birth to their second child and it is understood that he wants to follow Bianchi back to Italy. But Leeds were acutely aware of their lack of options in his position. The club entered the window with Chris Wood injured and strikers scarce. Wood will undergo another scan on his hamstring problem tomorrow.

Evans tried to fill that gap and it appeared from the outset that Kyle Lafferty was his forward of choice. Norwich City dithered over the possibility of Lafferty leaving on loan and the Northern Ireland international was trapped at Carrow Road as the window closed at 11pm yesterday. Leeds failed with other targets too, drawing a blank with Crystal Palace’s Fraizer Campbell and offering £300,000 for Barnsley’s Sam Winnall, a bid which Barnsley turned down flat. United did not increase their valuation.

In the short term, Evans might not miss those players. Leeds are as long as 250/1 to win promotion and 125/1 to make the play-offs. Where those aims were concerned, Evans needed David Blaine and half the cast of Wizbit. He will be happy with Diagouraga’s arrival and happy with the retention of Bridcutt. He clearly thinks that Carayol, in the right form, can tick a box in the way that someone like Jordan Botaka cannot. In the context of his own tenure, he will see this window as a start. But in the context of bridging the gap to the upper end of the Championship, January did not go far enough.