Daniel Farke reveals Leeds United man's 'only problem' in area immune from January transfer panic

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Ilia Gruev's only problem in his first season at Leeds United, at least in Daniel Farke's eyes, has been the position in which he plays.

Saturday's game at Cardiff City presented Gruev with a rare opportunity to start in the Championship. It was just the third time the Bulgarian international has graced Farke's XI in a league game, having previously started in 1-0 defeats at Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion. At Stoke, Gruev looked a little off the pace and physicality of the game, while at the Hawthorns he was better but still lacked genuine impactfulness. As Farke noted at the weekend, both of those appearances were in the box-to-box role rather than Gruev's preferred deep-lying position.

His third start, in Wales, as a 6, yielded a far better performance and finally delivered on what Farke has promised about the quality of his summer signing from the Bundesliga. The ex-Werder Bremen man kept a firm grip on proceedings in the midfield, alongside Glen Kamara and showed a more expansive side to his passing game too. For most of this season, Gruev has had a watching brief, thanks in chief to the form of the ever-present Ethan Ampadu, Kamara and 17-year-old Archie Gray.

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"The only problem was playing in the central midfield position so far because Ethan Ampadu is perhaps one of the standout performers so far and this is exactly the position where we've never had problems," said Farke after the 3-0 win at Cardiff. "Ilia has had to wait a lot. He came in a bit in number eight positions, perhaps not his natural position, also in some difficult away games. Even in those games I was quite pleased with his workload."

Leeds' issues at centre-back, where Pascal Struijk and Liam Cooper both missed out due to injury and Charlie Cresswell remained unselected due to what Farke has categorised as a squad role contentment issue, meant a move back into the defence for Ampadu, finally allowing Gruev the chance to slot into the deeper of the Whites' central midfield roles. Farke liked what the 23-year-old contributed in an identical scenario a week previous at Peterborough United in the FA Cup, and raved about his midfielder after the victory over Cardiff. What Farke liked was that Gruev did, in Ampadu's stead, exactly what Ampadu does.

"Today he showed - also in the cup he was outstanding - that he is a really, really top player with a top mentality," said the boss. "When he plays he always has the highest distance of all players on the pitch, really good on the ball, tidy on the ball, smart in his decision making and repairs mistakes of his team-mates. He recovers balls really well. He's also important for the balance of the game. It's almost like I'm speaking about Ethan Ampadu because this is exactly what he has done so far this season. Today we needed Ethan in a different position and it was Ilia's time to shine."

Midfield, at least defensive midfield, is an area that Leeds do not have to be too concerned about during the January transfer window. There are clear needs for reinforcement at right-back and left-back, the Cresswell situation might resolve itself in a way that requires an additional centre-back so that Ampadu can go back into midfield, and Farke has looked light of a natural number 10 at times this season - although Georginio Rutter has shone there twice now against Birmingham City and Cardiff. The headaches in different areas mean Farke is delighted to be able to count upon two players to cover this one vital role in his 4-2-3-1 set-up. "This is definitely a position, the deep six role, where we have the fewest problems in the whole squad and I'm particularly pleased to have two such great options like Ethan and Ilia," he added.