Chief football writer Phil Hay assesses whether Kemar Roofe can take on the first-choice striker role at Leeds United and if Caleb Ekuban’s latest injury setback highlights a lack of cover up front.
KEMAR ROOFE is resisting the urge to go knocking on Thomas Christiansen’s door but the reality is that Leeds United’s head coach has never needed him more.
His hat-trick at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday was a timely intervention for Leeds and no less convenient for a manager whose choice of strikers is down to one.
Roofe classes himself as a striker despite a spell at Elland Road which has cast him as something of a utility forward and his take-down of QPR brought to mind the reason why Leeds signed him in the first place. His goals for Oxford United, who sold him for £3m last year, totalled 26 in his first full season in League Two, enough to make promotion possible. The second half at Loftus Road brought that quality out of him.
His three goals – taken clinically on 63, 68 and 95 minutes – have opened the door to a concerted chance in his preferred position and the change in Roofe after his switch from the left wing before half-time suggested again that Roofe is wasted out wide.
“I was also a striker and if I scored three goals I’d be delighted and waiting for the next game to come,” Christiansen said, indicating that Roofe had laid claim to the centre-forward’s role.
It was inconceivable that United’s boss would rush to drop him against Norwich City this weekend but Roofe’s importance to Christiansen’s tactics and systems is at its height. Injury to Caleb Ekuban led to a pivotal reshuffle at Loftus Road, allowing Roofe to move up front, and the sight of Ekuban on crutches at the end of the game implied that he would be absent until after Christmas at the earliest.
Pierre-Michel Lasogga is almost over a calf strain but last appeared more than a month ago and Jay-Roy Grot missed Leeds’ 3-1 win over QPR with a knock sustained in training. Grot, in any case, has seen the first half of the Championship season pass him by.
There are lingering doubts about whether Christiansen possesses the calibre of centre-forward he needs in this division, a player in the mould of Chris Wood, but most of those available to him have found a means of chipping in. Lasogga boasts five goals and three assists in 10 games and Ekuban’s effort helped Leeds’ regain some form after the last international break.
Roofe’s finishing at Loftus Road was exemplary: three efforts, three goals and all of them poached with a finisher’s instinct. In the space of half-an-hour he became Leeds’ top scorer in the Championship.
It was Ekuban who said last month that the position of first-choice centre-forward was there to be taken. “I think we all have the ability to be the first striker for the team,” he said. “It’s just that we have to reach our top form. In top form, yes I can be (first choice) but the same with Kemar, Lasogga and Jay-Roy.”
Ekuban missed three months of the season with a broken foot suffered in August and Leeds sent him for scans on his latest injury yesterday, fearing that the damage might be identical.
Christiansen withdrew him in the 38th minute on Saturday, repositioning Roofe and Gjanni Alioski and giving Pawel Cibicki a league debut on the right wing. Both Roofe and Cibicki profited from the change, with Cibicki laying on Roofe’s second goal and escaping the anonymity which has clouded his first six months at Elland Road.
There are lingering doubts about whether Christiansen possesses the calibre of centre-forward he needs in this division, a player in the mould of Chris Wood, but most of those available to him have found a means of chipping in.Phil Hay
Roofe, nonetheless, expressed sympathy for Ekuban. “It’s not nice and that’s the thing, there’s no selfishness here,” he said. “There’s no ‘I want him injured so I can play up there’.
“If he’s fit and he’s selected then it is what it is. I just look to get on the pitch and do what I need to do. There are no (goal) targets for me. I want to keep winning games, keep playing and trying to impress.”
Leeds lost the knack of winning games through the second half of September and October but the result at QPR was a third victory in five matches and Christiansen has the Championship play-offs in his sights again.
Norwich on Saturday is the first of two successive home games, the second against Hull City on December 23, and QPR began a run of six fixtures involving sides in the bottom half of the table; the sort of clubs who Christiansen’s players have beaten routinely.
QPR had the better of the first half on Saturday and frustrated Leeds for an hour but Roofe broke the dam with a 63rd-minute header and drove Leeds on in a period where their attacking quality told.
“It’s a massive result, especially before the Christmas period when you’ve got so many games back-to-back,” Roofe said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing – top or bottom you’re not guaranteed a win. We have to put 100 per cent on every game.
“We’ll take confidence from this and keep the momentum going. It’s probably good timing having two home games now.”
Leeds are seventh in the Championship and on the tail of a Sheffield United team whose form is dropping off. The gap to sixth stands at four points and other fixtures might work for Christiansen in the next fortnight. Fifth-placed Aston Villa play fourth-placed Derby County this weekend. Villa and Sheffield United then meet the following Saturday.
Roofe insisted that the target of a top-six finish had never wavered at Elland Road, despite Leeds losing seven of nine games before the last international break. “Whatever we said at the start of the season,” he said. “Nothing has changed.”