LEEDS UNITED wanted this international break to be their final draw of breath before a last push towards the play-offs. Instead, the rumbling of transfer talk in the background at Elland Road leaves no doubt about the focus of the club’s attention.
Most eyes are on the summer with eight games of the season to go.
Andy Yiadom, the Barnsley defender, is one player who Leeds are actively targeting with a view to signing him on a free transfer when his contract expires on July 1 and the only consolation of a lost Championship season is the knowledge, five months in advance, that Leeds are planning for life in the same division. Time is on their side, whatever else might be against them.
Yiadom, a strong and versatile full-back, is Paul Heckingbottom’s target, a player he took to Barnsley in his first summer as manager there and who worked under him for 18 months. It is the sort of move which counters the suspicion that Victor Orta, United’s director of football, is autonomous to the point of controlling transfers entirely and Heckingbottom has made no secret of his intention to influence the club’s recruitment. In the meantime, and before the summer transfer window opens, it falls to him to exert more influence on the squad he already controls.
The aim of a top-six finish in the Championship was described by Angus Kinnear, Leeds’ chief executive, as “at best, challenging” before Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Sheffield Wednesday, a generous description of a goal which slipped away some weeks ago. United have the worst record in the division since Boxing Day – eight points from 14 games, in a period where Fulham have earned 34 and avoided a single defeat – and Heckingbottom has embarked on an 18-month contract at Elland Road with one win from eight matches in charge.
The closing stages of this season might be the last chance saloon for certain members of his squad. For Heckingbottom, it is a chance to breathe some life into his record. The work he is able to do at Thorp Arch in the 10 days before United host Bolton Wanderers on Good Friday will be limited by the players who are tied up elsewhere.
Pontus Jansson, Stuart Dallas, Gjanni Alioski and Eunan O’Kane are regular absentees during international breaks, but Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Leeds’ first-choice goalkeeper for the time being, has joined up with Northern Ireland’s Under-21s and will not return until the middle of next week.
Heckingbottom’s initial reign has highlighted the fact that United’s problems start at the back, without ending there. The 40-year-old has observed a litany of cheap goals but found no way to stem them yet.
On Saturday, Sheffield Wednesday’s first arose from Adam Reach driving a free header against a post at close range. Their second, in the first minute of injury-time, came after Jansson missed a header and Matthew Pennington went to ground in a challenge with Atdhe Nuhiu, leaving the Kosovan to burst through and score.
Over the course of this campaign, Leeds have won only one league match in which they shipped the opening goal. They have lost only once in matches where they have drawn first blood. Asked what needed most work during the international break, Heckingbottom said: “The mentality to stop goals going in. It has to be that.
I want those players to go away and be good with their national teams, to have good experiences and represent themselves well, but my bigger concern is making sure they’re still focused on us.Leeds United manager, Paul Heckingbottom
“It makes the game so much easier and that’s what winning teams have. They’re really disciplined and resilient in their work. They give nothing away. People can talk about styles of football but if you’re going behind it makes it really difficult. Look at the percentage of wins when you go in front. It’s vital.
“The problem is that we’ve been chasing games and going behind. We need to be in front. We had a little spell (against Wednesday) where we had good opportunities and we snatched at them. If one of those goes in it’s a different story. You have to take those chances.
“We’ve got a lot of players away now and, if I’m honest, I’d rather it was a normal week and we were playing Tuesday night.
“I want those players to go away and be good with their national teams, to have good experiences and represent themselves well, but my bigger concern is making sure they’re still focused on us.”
Jansson is the only international for whom this batch of friendlies, the last before the World Cup in Russia, have any significance. Sweden qualified for the finals via the play-offs before Christmas and the centre-back is intent on making their World Cup squad. They play Chile on Saturday before travelling for a game against Romania next Tuesday.
His season and United’s in general has not done much to press his claim for inclusion, though Jansson is expected to make the final cut. Leeds have conceded 15 times in seven homes games since the end of December. Their total number of concessions is now beyond 50, a slightly better tally than that of the Barnsley squad Heckingbottom left behind last month, and their goal difference has slipped into negative figures. Caleb Ekuban’s failure to convert two first-half chances on Saturday and record his first Championship strike in the process summed up the rut United are in.
“I’ve not seen the chances back,” Heckingbottom said afterwards, “and I’d never say he should score before I see it, but he’ll be disappointed. Strikers want to score goals.”