Massimo Cellino’s first deadline day in England ended in a PR disaster: a tweet from Leeds United telling supporters to stay up for an 11pm deadline, quickly followed by announcements that Matt Smith and Dominic Poleon had been sold. Cellino was away in Miami and almost uncontactable, leaving an offer for Italian striker Leonardo Pavoletti to wither and collapse at the death. Staff at Elland Road complained about being “hung out to dry” as Twitter closed in.
Twelve months on, Leeds and Cellino had their business in order by the early hours of this afternoon. There was last-minute interest in certain players – Watford’s Lloyd Dyer in particular – but the club were happy to name Jordan Botaka as their final signing of the window. That transfer was finalised late last night and announced several hours before FIFA’s deadline.
United were organised in two senses this summer; in concluding most of their signings promptly and in signing players who they set out to recruit. Fernando Forestieri was one who got away, the transfer Cellino pursued most vigorously without actually completing, but he shook the habit of losing players as handshakes prepared to take place. Frederik Sorensen and Fernando Viviani epitomised the on-the-edge manner in which Leeds attacked the market a year ago.
Their spending in this window amounted to more than £5m; less than Bristol City were prepared to spend on one player but far more than Leeds are used to investing. The finance in any case mattered less than the rationale for pursuing targets and changing the squad. There was method without madness and a clear train of thought; as good a window as Leeds have navigated in years.
In 2014 United brought in 15 new players and loaded almost every position without buying a single winger. They put their finger in the air and adopted a diamond midfield, a formation which only highlighted the elephant in the room. In contrast, the club’s head coach, Uwe Rosler, got most of what he wanted: wingers in Stuart Dallas and Botaka, a goalscorer and centre-forward in Chris Wood and a defensive midfielder in Tom Adeyemi. They were fundamental requirements for a coach who told Cellino at the outset that he would go down the road of 4-3-3.
Rosler touched on those requirements again on Saturday, prior to confirmation of the deal for Botaka. “When you play the majority of games in 4-3-3, you need wingers,” he said. “At this moment in time we’re probably one short.” Arriving from Excelsior on a two-year contract, Botaka filled the gap.
The Congo international is United’s gamble; a wildcard who for all his appearances in the Dutch Eredivisie is an unknown quantity in the Championship. Cellino saw Botaka as a risk, as he did Anthony Limbombe, and nothing like the safe signing that Forestieri would have been. But the rest of the club’s transfers allowed them to take it. Wood, Dallas, Adeyemi and Bamba created a spine of fairly established Championship footballers. Botaka will try to settle amongst them. His first task will be to dislodge an off-colour Sam Byram from the team.
Byram, unexpectedly, was the window’s non-story. Aston Villa showed some interest in him early on, talking tentatively about a deal which would have seen Andreas Weimann come the other way, and Newcastle watched him more than once. But the 21-year-old’s promising pre-season form evaporated last month and he was first to be substituted in United’s games against Sheffield Wednesday and Derby County.
Leeds tried to reinvigorate contract talks prior to the closure of the window but their original offer to Byram before Christmas – a proposal in which he was asked to reduce his weekly wage in return for a lengthy deal – sucked the life out of negotiations. Byram indicated that he wanted to stay at Elland Road this season but Leeds have little expectation of extending his contract before it expires next summer. In the meantime, with Botaka in the building and Gaetano Berardi settled in at right-back, his place is coming under threat.
Leeds gave serious thought to signing other wingers, heeding Rosler’s advice that too many was better than too few. They spoke with Wolves about Rajiv van La Parra but could not agree a fee and were less than impressed when news of those talks went everywhere on Friday. Fresh discussions about Will Buckley took place before the weekend but did not lead to an offer and nibbles at Dyer and Nottingham Forest’s Jamie Paterson went the same way. Rosler, in any case, was philosophical about incomings. “If we don’t achieve them in this window then we tap into the loan window,” he said after United’s win over Derby County.
There were, and are, other things that Rosler wanted. He fancied Liam Moore on loan from Leicester City but Cellino was not keen on signing another centre-back unless one of Leeds’ existing defenders moved on. Moore joined Bristol City on loan at lunchtime today. But as a whole, United’s transfer window has been a collective effort: no terse discussions about options like Nile Ranger, no attempts to hoist unknown player after unknown player onto Rosler, no staff left to dangle as the deadline arrived and no temptation to cash in on young, invaluable assets. These feel ever more like changed days.