Mirco Antenucci is a puzzling player. For the best part of two seasons no striker at Leeds United has shown an instinct for finishing like his. Even now, no striker at Leeds would have taken a goal as he took his second against Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.
And yet, consistently, coaches who have held their jobs for long enough to take a view on him have all found reasons not to play him or to build their teams with Antenucci as an afterthought. Uwe Rosler drew particular criticism for that, but Steve Evans has used him sparingly and Neil Redfearn was no different. He has never been a perfect fit.
Is it reflective of his attitude? Or does a striker like Antenucci – suited in build and style to playing in a front two – no longer belong in a division where the fashion is to trust in one up top? With a game like his, the Italian should not be so expendable in the Championship. Another goal would install him as United’s leading scorer for the second successive year. But the fact remains that Souleymane Doukara has been appearing more regularly than him.
There is an argument for retaining Antenucci this summer, even though he is close to turning 32 and even though he is tempted by a return to Italy when his contract ends. It might not say much in such a toothless squad, but United would lose their most natural goalscorer by moving him on. As clear as it is that the club’s pool of players needs gutting, it will challenge them financially to completely overhaul a collection of forwards in which no-one scores regularly and Antenucci, statistically, scores more than most.
There are, equally, legitimate reasons for letting Antenucci go. This has not been a stellar season for him and it took his first goal on Saturday to perk up an ordinary display. It took that goal to make him look as interested as he can and to encourage the sort of devilment which troubled Cardiff City on Tuesday. He touched on the subject of contract talks after the win over Bolton and said he was interested in the option of extending his deal but it is not a secret that Antenucci asked Leeds to allow him to move back to Italy in January.
His agent was in contact with Massimo Cellino during the final weekend of the transfer window, trying to negotiate Antenucci’s exit from Elland Road. Cellino resisted but had Leeds been in possession of anything like a surplus of forwards, Antenucci would have left. The likelihood is that he will be gone in the summer, regardless of rhetoric to the contrary.
From his point of view there is motivation for a move; part of it being that, for a second year running, he has been peripheral at Elland Road, even in periods where his form justified more appearances and United’s support were clamouring for them. He has not been offered a new deal and, at the age of 31, must feel the need for the protection of a contract which Italian clubs would happily offer him. And, in January, his partner gave birth to their second child. That was a prime factor in his dialogue with Cellino, as Ascoli and others made their interest clear. It might be that Antenucci’s heart is elsewhere. And, from a neutral perspective, understandably so.
But where Leeds are concerned, this summer will call for ruthless decisions on the playing side and not just with Antenucci. There are glaring shortcomings in the team and the balance of the squad is far from ideal; too much padding, too few of the type of players who will make the Championship’s team of the season. In the case of Antenucci, he has come to be classed as a squad player over the past two years and Leeds need to ask if squad players are what they need to spend money on. And, more to the point, whether a role as a squad player is the type of opportunity which will keep Antenucci happy.
If the answer to those questions is no, then, as Noel Whelan said in his YEP column on Monday, this summer will be the time for Antenucci and Leeds to move on, with no especially hard feelings. It has never quite worked for Antenucci here. And when he settles games as adeptly as he did on Saturday and Tuesday, it is hard to understand why.