Phil Hay - Inside Elland Road column: Why Leeds United must make the most of the January transfer window

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Billy Whitehouse’s only appearance for Leeds United came at Sutton United in the FA Cup. He left the club a few months later and joined Alfreton Town. Paul McKay’s only appearance for Leeds United also came at Sutton. He survived a few months longer and is now playing at Morecambe.

They were notable debuts for the sole reason that neither player had been anywhere near United’s first team and neither was again. Which, on the day, was the point: two fringe academy figures with no prospect of a lasting career at Leeds randomly blooded in the FA Cup’s fourth round. Garry Monk’s irritation with that January transfer window was transmitted less by what he said than what he did. An artificial team on Sutton’s artificial pitch, for the benefit of anyone who wondered if he was happy with the absence of new signings.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Leeds United head coach Marcelo Bielsa.

Ambiguity, or coded direction, is not Marcelo Bielsa’s style. He was the one coach in England who named his line-up publicly in advance of last weekend’s FA Cup ties and he is one coach who Leeds can count on to voice his displeasure if they cross or disappoint him. At Athletic Bilbao, in the days when Javi Martinez and Fernando Llorente were trying to wriggle their way out of the club, Bielsa confronted them both in front of the rest of his squad and asked directly if he was the problem. Both players said no and Bielsa duly relayed the conversation to the media. Over 30 years he has created the persona of a man who says in public what he says in private.

There are limits, naturally, and Bielsa has been coy in talking about this transfer window, at least until last Friday when he conceded that a winger and a goalkeeper would be helpful, or a number 10 if Pablo Hernandez flamencos back to the right side of midfield, but his comments fell a long way short of an outright demand. The transfer window is an event in England, an extravaganza which energises managers, but Bielsa treats signings like the last throw of the dice: improvement from the outside when internal improvement can raise a squad no higher. Leeds gave up on recommending new centre-backs in August and are not even bothering this month. Bielsa wants Liam Cooper and Gaetano Berardi back fit. No more, no less and no debate to be had.

Leeds United's current injury list and expected return dates ahead of Derby County clash
The obvious response is to say that every injury Leeds deal with seems to spawn another. Berardi is onto his second, almost recovered from a nasty hamstring tear, and Leeds no sooner deduced that Patrick Bamford and Izzy Brown were over the worst of their knee ligament issues when new problems cropped up.

Brown was a signing made for the second half of this season but his recovery from ACL surgery has been so long and painstaking – a year to the day this Tuesday – that any football Bielsa gets from him will be better than none. The Chelsea midfielder was Samuel Saiz’s competition and United’s head coach has neither to hand. It is there, and in goal, that Leeds should be most compelled to act.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell has held the gloves under Bielsa all season but notwithstanding a good range of saves at QPR on Sunday, United’s games over Christmas strengthened the argument for a change of keeper.

Bielsa was thinking that way when Jamal Blackman broke a leg in November and it was always likely that Peacock-Farrell would dip. He is, on reflection, a 22-year-old in his first full season, carrying the no 1 shirt at Leeds and the no 1 shirt with Northern Ireland. It has all come at once and very quickly, providing exposure of the good and bad sort.

Peacock-Farrell’s argument would be that he has played 25 times for a club who are top of the Championship after 26 games.

Those 26 games have generated a 12-point gap to Nottingham Forest in seventh. Leeds could gamble on that margin with their existing squad if the play-offs were enough for them but this January transfer window is different to most, a chance to edge the much finer margins involved in winning automatic promotion.

Listen to every word Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa had to say ahead of Derby County showdown
Top six would have done when Bielsa flew in from Argentina. Top two is what Leeds are in for now. There are, as Angus Kinnear said recently, numerous January signings which fail to click and burn money. But there are others which don’t, like Aleksandar Mitrovic’s loan to Fulham at this precise juncture last year.

What difference did Mitrovic make to Fulham? The club were 10th in the Championship after 26 games, on a modest total of 39 points. Their last 20 matches reeled in 49 and opened the door to the Premier League. Seasons often turn as the years turn with them and it is easy to forget the extent to which Bielsa has animated the squad he inherited from Paul Heckingbottom; that despite United’s present position, the nuts and bolts of his team lost it after Christmas last season and trundled into 13th place.

That is what Bielsa tries to do: pick up players, make them fitter, immerse them in his tactics and trust that a combination of physical graft and his own preparation will make them flourish.

To that end, he will reject any potential signing this month whose conditioning is lacking or whose ability to play his way is questionable.

Transfers like that feel stranger to him than Leif Davis or Adam Forshaw at centre-back, a lesser alternative than papering cracks, but out there, at a cost, are players who could help him.

Very few teams in the Championship are so good as to be beyond improvement and Bielsa’s is no different. This window could allow him to punch at the weight of his squad, rather than constantly punching above it.