Fresh signings needed to shore up Leeds United's campaign
Stuttering form over Christmas, followed by a shock FA Cup exit at the hands of League Two Newport County, has led to renewed focus on the strength of Leeds United's first team squad. Phil Hay reports.
The significance of the FA Cup, Thomas Christiansen insisted, had not been lost on him or the players who fell apart at Newport County on Sunday. It was clearly not lost on his chairman either. “The lowest moment for me since I joined,” wrote Andrea Radrizzani on Twitter at full-time, praising Newport’s “spirit and passion” which in his words Leeds United “lacked completely”.
Radrizzani has rarely been so choice, even when Christiansen was weighed down by repeated Championship losses before Christmas, and the tone of his post-match tweet was indicative of the unsatisfactory fortnight behind him. A stutter at the very end of December and a limp elimination from the FA Cup against Newport was a cause for reflection halfway through Radrizzani’s first season as United’s owner.
Leeds felt in good shape after their Boxing Day win at Burton Albion; content enough to indicate that the January transfer window would be relatively inactive. The club did not go so far as putting a block on recruitment but attention was given primarily to signings who would, in theory, break through at a later date.
A deal for midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi, the young Japan international, was put in place at the start of December. The arrival of Finland Under-19 centre-back Aapo Halme was done within 48 hours of the window opening. Halme will play with United’s Under-23s for the time being. Ideguchi, despite receiving a work permit from the Football Association, is expected to head on loan to Spain’s Cultural Leonesa for the rest of the season.
Leeds and Cultural Leonesa are linked through their relationships with Qatar’s Aspire Academy, the vastly expensive football development centre run by Leeds director Ivan Bravo, and Ideguchi’s planned move to the Spanish second division maintains the idea of the 21-year-old being a player for the future. Ideguchi, barring injury, will head to the World Cup with Japan in June but United are reluctant to throw him into the Championship at the midway point of their term. In the context of Christiansen’s senior squad, the bigger issues lie elsewhere.
One of those, the left-back position, will be addressed shortly if Leeds succeeded in agreeing a fee for Club Brugge defender Laurens De Bock. De Bock is set on joining Leeds and, according to reports in Belgium yesterday, has left Brugge’s winter training camp in Spain to ready himself for the formalities of a transfer to Elland Road. United are hopeful of putting him through a medical in the next 24 hours and completing the signing before Saturday’s game at Ipswich Town.
Leeds’ sporting director, Victor Orta, held repeated talks with Club Brugge officials last week and Leeds are working to finalise a deal for a left-back who Hamburg are rumoured to have offered £6m for during the summer transfer window.
De Bock, 25, was an integral part of Brugge’s squad at that stage but has played only six times since.
United have tried multiple options at left-back this season, relying most heavily on Gaetano Berardi after giving Vurnon Anita an early run. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson featured occasionally before the turn of the year and his unremarkable hour on the pitch at Newport on Sunday – a first appearance since October – could bring an early end to his season-long loan from Manchester United with De Bock’s arrival on the cards. Christiansen’s response to questions about Borthwick-Jackson’s future last week was to say that the 20-year-old would be given his chance to make a point in the FA Cup.
Others at Newport fared equally badly. Jay-Roy Grot, the maligned Dutch teenager who was jeered by the Elland Road crowd during last month’s win over Norwich City, made no impression on Newport’s defence. Leeds retain a quiet confidence that a fit and in-form Pierre-Michel Lasogga can return a useful haul of goals in the second half of the season but his performance on Sunday called that confidence into question.
Much as United had no plans to recruit another centre-forward, their league position is delicate and Samuel Saiz, the source of nine goals from number 10, is banned until the middle of next month.
Saiz’s red card at Rodney Parade, shown to him for spitting at Newport’s Robbie Willmott, was a sour sting in the tail for Christiansen, who named the Spaniard on the bench and introduced him as a substitute with the intention of closing out a 1-0 win. Leeds conceded twice in the last 15 minutes and Saiz was dismissed in injury-time.
He and Leeds accepted an automatic six-match ban yesterday after Saiz apologised to Newport, Willmott and their manager, Michael Flynn.
Amid concerns about the extent of Luke Ayling’s ankle injury, suffered against Nottingham Forest on New Year’s Day, United’s squad is under sudden pressure. Stuart Dallas was due to start full training this week after two months out with an ankle injury but Caleb Ekuban is still recovering from a fractured foot. The damage suffered by Ronaldo Vieira at Burton has taken longer to heal than the club anticipated. Leeds’ budget, wage structure and strategy under Radrizzani has consistently leaned towards what managing director Angus Kinnear calls “medium-term” signings, of which Ideguchi is another, but the performance of their fringe players on Sunday left the unavoidable feeling that this tilt for the play-offs needs a more immediate injection.