New signing Toumani Diagouraga is already limbering up to make his debut for Leeds United – and it could well be as early as tonight against the club that has just let him go. Phil Hay reports.
Brentford cut a big branch from their tree by selling Toumani Diagouraga.
The midfielder was part of the furniture at Griffin Park, a cult hero who Brentford squeezed every drop out of. He was also a fixture in their team right up until Leeds United’s bid for him last week.
In all but one of his four full seasons with Brentford, Diagouraga played more than 40 times. Leeds were so confident about his fitness that they spread news of his transfer before his medical had started. He passed it on Saturday and a £575,000 move was finalised today (Monday), in time for him to play at Brentford tomorrow.
His former club know the intimate details of the player returning to face them. Diagouraga, a 28-year-old Parisian, was the second-longest-serving player at Griffin Park. He provided drive and muscle in Brentford’s midfield during a spell in which the club grew rapidly in competitive strength. Steve Evans will look to him for dominance if not for goals. Diagouraga last scored in March 2013 and Brentford’s crowd took to urging him to shoot whenever he appeared within sight of the net.
Despite that relationship and despite his progression at Brentford – the first club where he truly settled – Diagouraga seemed to be craving a change of scene. Brentford manager Dean Smith said over the weekend that the former Watford trainee “looked like he wanted to get away.” Rangers, the Scottish Championship club, tried to sign him. Their manager Mark Warburton coached Diagouraga for two seasons at Griffin Park but the bid from Ibrox was crowded out when various English clubs, Leeds included, began making offers.
From the outside it appears that Brentford have sold Leeds a mainstay; their player of the year in 2014-15, chosen ahead of Alex Pritchard and Andre Gray. Evans believes he has signed one of the Championship’s better players and hopes Diagouraga will prove it at Griffin Park tonight. The midfielder will be in United’s 18-man squad and is in contention to start.
“He’s been a big player there for quite a few years, a major player in their run to the play-offs last season, but he was starting to get towards the last year of his deal and there didn’t seem to be any sign of another offer,” Evans said.
“It was a bit like our situation with Sam Byram – Toums wanted to look at other opportunities and when that became common knowledge, a lot of clubs went in for him including ours. As soon as the news came out last week that we’d done a deal two Championship managers texted me saying ‘outstanding signing’. I think that’s what we’ve got and I’m not the only one.
“I looked back at the game when Brentford came to Leeds earlier in the season [a 1-1 draw at Elland Road in September]. I don’t expect our own supporters to remember every opposition player but he passed everyone off the park that day. He was head and shoulders above the rest with a pass completion rate of 98.4 per cent. I’m not just talking simple, five-yard balls. He was on my list when I first came here and started talking about players.
“He strong, he’s controlling and he’s powerful. I could speak all day about him but what I really want now is for him to settle, find his feet at Leeds and show why it was that I thought so highly of him. I’d rather he did the talking now.”
Diagouraga is one of three signings completed by Leeds this month and the second central midfielder recruited by Evans. United’s head coach has added to the area of the squad where the club already had most options but he was unrepentant about trying to tweak his midfield.
Liam Bridcutt – on-loan from Sunderland – brought order to Evans’ side in December but a 1-0 win over Bristol City on Saturday was a veritable slog, caused by Leeds’ inability to control the game or outwork City. It is clear to Evans, as it is to anyone watching United, that his team lacks goals and suffers from defensive weakness, and he will use the last week of the January transfer window to try and resolve those issues.
But Diagouraga was on his radar regardless. Leeds have numbers in midfield. Evans’ contention was that quantity was no substitute for balance and quality.
“It’s not that I don’t rate the midfielders we’ve got,” Evans said. “Lewis Cook’s got huge talent, Luke Murphy can be outstanding in this league and if we get Tom Adeyemi back up to his best form then he can make a difference too. No-one would deny that Liam Bridcutt’s been really impressive.
“But I don’t just want a few options in there. I want several, to keep the standard rising. You should always be trying to improve no matter where you are in the league and, as we go forward, I’ll look for players here who can come in and challenge the likes of Diagouraga and Bridcutt, even though they’re my signings. That’s how it should be.
“We’re looking at strengthening other areas of the team and that’s not a secret but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t sign someone who can improve our midfield. I can see, and others can see, that we need to be better in that area.”
Having agreed a permanent deal, Brentford had no way of stopping Diagouraga from playing tonight, aside from delaying his move until after the game.
Evans said he was still deciding whether to let the Frenchman loose, still to decide whether a debut at Griffin Park so soon after his exit is the right decision.
But United’s laboured performance against Bristol City called for changes. Striker Chris Wood could also start this evening having appeared as a substitute on Saturday.
“I’ll do what I usually do and sleep on things before picking the team,” Evans said. “It’s funny how it’s worked out for Toums, going back to Brentford so soon, but picking a team isn’t about whether it’s the right occasion for him. It’s about picking a team which will give us the best chance of beating Brentford.
“Either way, I don’t need to worry about him. He’s a level-headed lad and the people I spoke to about him said that he doesn’t have bad days in terms of application or effort.
“He might have off-days in terms of quality but every player does. He’s in the squad and he’s an option.”