Frustration and relief were the emotions of the transfer deadline day for Leeds United fans as the Elland Road club kept hold of its prized young assets despite plenty of interest. Phil Hay reports.
The positive side of a passive deadline-day at Elland Road was the absence of any incendiary sales. Sam Byram’s exit from Leeds United was planned in advance of the transfer window but the club would have walked into a firestorm by selling anyone else like him.
In the end, uncertainty focused elsewhere in the days before the deadline as Mirco Antenucci, United’s 31-year-old striker, pressed for a move back to Italy but the bigger concern publicly was that Leeds would be tempted into cashing in on younger, more valuable players. Steve Evans’s disappointment at the club’s failure to make any last-minute signings or find him a forward should be tempered by the realisation that his squad remained largely intact.
United’s head coach claimed last month that bids or expressions of interest had been made for numerous players at Elland Road, among them Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor and Alex Mowatt. Bournemouth’s attempts to sign Cook were particularly concerted but Leeds refused enough times to make Eddie Howe think that the club were overvaluing their 19-year-old midfielder.
Cook’s form was patchy in January, as Leeds’ performances in the Championship were, but a deadline-day exit would have come on the back of his most convincing display for some time. He was pivotal in Evans’s approach to last Saturday’s FA Cup game at Bolton Wanderers, so much so that his chance in the No 10 role might well be extended. Amongst a group of players where strikers are scarce, a midfielder of that sort has obvious merit.
There is an argument to say that Leeds lack a natural No 10 or that Alex Mowatt’s game might be more suited to it than Cook’s but Mowatt has been in and out of the team this season and troubled with a dead leg recently. Cook said the freedom to pull the strings in front of Liam Bridcutt and Toumani Diagouraga had suited him at Bolton and United’s display in the first 45 minutes of a 2-1 fourth-round win was among their best of the season.
“I thought I affected the game a bit more for the team and we got the win,” Cook said.
“I don’t really mind where I play but it’s good to play in different positions. I want to improve my game in any way I can. It (No 10) is a bit different to playing in a two or even deeper. My game’s got to expand.
“It’s a bit of a free role and I like that. I can try to express myself. Hopefully, I’ll start creating a bit more and scoring some more. That’s what I’d like to do.”
Goals and assists are the glaring omissions in Cook’s game, in spite of his potential and his recognised talent. In 67 appearances, he has scored once for Leeds, in a League Cup tie at Doncaster Rovers earlier this season. He has been credited with one assist in the past six months.
Cook said Evans was trying to address that side of his game. “He’s told me to calm down when I’m running with the ball and not be 100 miles an hour,” Cook said.
“He’s told me to get a bit of composure and find that pass or that shot. That’s what I need to focus on.”
Prior to the turn of the year, Evans used Bridcutt – his loanee from Sunderland – as a line of protection between his defence and a midfield four.
The arrival of Diagouraga in a £575,000 transfer from Brentford last month gave him the opportunity to put two players in front of his backline and leave Cook to roam, with wingers either side of him and Antenucci up front.
Chris Wood, the most natural lone striker in the squad, remains on the sidelines with a hamstring injury and was due to have another scan today.
Cook said Diagouraga’s full debut and the system employed had been key to a deserved win over Bolton, who conceded twice before half-time to Diagouraga and Souleymane Doukara and were openly criticised by manager Neil Lennon afterwards.
United have been paired with Watford in round five of the FA Cup, avoiding the Premier League’s leading clubs but handed a difficult trip to Vicarage Road. The date of the tie is still to be confirmed.
“There was a lot of good movement and it made it easy for us to play on the ball,” Cook said. “We all felt comfortable, we all took our time and created chances. We could have been three up at half-time.
“Diagouraga and Liam are very similar players and it’s good for them to play together. He popped up with his goal which he deserved. He’s a good addition to the squad.”
Evans revealed that he had first tried to bring Diagouraga to Elland Road around the time when Bridcutt joined Leeds on loan from Sunderland in November. A deal for the Frenchman was eventually done on January 25 after United upped their initial offer to just short of £600,000.
“He’s come to play a big part and I took great care when I listed him and Bridcutt as two players I wanted,” Evans said. “It can take time to get the right players because we have to be prudent. I wanted Toumani at the same time as Liam but it couldn’t be done.
“Lewis Cook was simply sensational but he got superb backing from Bridcutt and Diagouraga.”