Leeds United problem position finds £17m solution after seven transfer windows and puzzling four-year absence

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Between January 2018 and June 2022, Leeds United went seven transfer windows without signing a central midfielder, a position which ultimately required significant upheaval when the time came to replace the likes of Mateusz Klich, Kalvin Phillips and Adam Forshaw.

Marc Roca, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie came and went, all within the space of 12 months - middling form, stylistic incompatibility, injury and exit clauses the various reasons behind their collective departure last summer. Leeds were, on the face of it, back to square one, needing an entirely new midfield after boldly stating the club's aim to win promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Big job, that.

In a matter of weeks, they signed three for a combined £17 million - less than what was paid for Adams alone - and promoted one from the Under-21s. As a result, Leeds find themselves arguably stocked better than any of their positional or divisional rivals. Three are active full internationals, boasting discernibly different skillsets but fulfil the roles asked of them by Daniel Farke; the other is a versatile England youth international, closing in on 3,000 senior minutes in his first campaign as a professional footballer, yet to turn 18.

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To say Leeds' recruitment, integration and application of Ethan Ampadu, Glen Kamara, Ilia Gruev and Archie Gray is anything other than an unqualified success, would simply be false. Farke is keen to stress this team are not yet the finished article, but it is difficult to imagine a midfield four rotating in and out, playing alongside each other in separate pairings, that doesn't see a drop in performance standards - except this one doesn't.

When Pascal Struijk sustained an injury towards the end of December, there were concerns that if Ampadu were to vacate midfield and fill in at centre-half, Leeds might find themselves overrun in midfield. The opposite has been the case. Ilia Gruev has bided his time on the substitutes' bench, coming in to pose the following question: is the Bulgarian actually just as effective as Ampadu in defensive midfield?

While it must be said Plymouth Argyle, Cardiff City, Preston North End, Norwich City and Bristol City are not the sternest cabal of potential opponents this division has to offer, Gruev has averaged 94 per cent pass accuracy across Leeds' last six fixtures. In addition, the 23-year-old has demonstrated an ability to recover possession cleanly, tailgating opponents, awaiting the optimal opportunity to slide in and retrieve the ball before calmly playing forward into space. Recent displays have resembled that of the archetypal, modern-day, two-way defensive midfield player - or 'Bulgarian Busquets' as some supporters on social media have suggested.

As Leeds enter the final third of this 2023/24 campaign, there is a peculiar serenity amongst fans that the team's options in central midfield have the capacity to get the job done, no matter the combination of personnel. Ampadu was rested as Leeds saw off Plymouth at Home Park in midweek, booking a place in the Last 16 of this year's FA Cup. Leeds' last visit to the quarter-finals was 2003, a full three years before Gray was born. Gruev went the distance in Devon, Kamara was subbed on 71 minutes - an assist to his name, the 17-year-old replaced him then filled in at right-back for extra-time as Gruev was trusted to operate as a single pivot while Leeds' fresh legs in attack ran riot, adding three further goals.

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In abstract terms, 'The Midfield' is the perfect launchpad for the Whites' potent attack, which has amassed countless goals and assists between them in the first two-thirds of this season. The way in which Farke's midfield functions, as well as their fearsome forward line, shows no sign of letting up or creaking under the weight of a two-games-per-week schedule, competing on two fronts or the fact they all remain in their first seasons at Elland Road. If anything, their adaptation to a new challenge, and reaction to adversity over a wobbly Christmas period, suggests if they are to change gears, it will be up into fourth and fifth, rather than back into second or first. The opposite can be said of their position in the league table, though.

There remains an awful lot of football to be played, but in three months the regular season will be done, before the drama of the play-offs begins. Recent weeks have birthed new automatic promotion hope and eight games unbeaten across all competitions since the turn of the year implies Leeds are not and will not be giving up on catching the likes of Leicester City, Ipswich Town and Southampton.

Injury to one of Farke's midfield generals would give rise to mild consternation, but not widespread panic like prolonged absences to Phillips and Adams wrought in recent seasons. Nor will Leeds need to rely on central defenders to deputise further forward - Pascal Struijk's days in defensive midfield are done, while the 2024 equivalent of Robin Koch will play no part in midfield, unlike the German who was occasionally required to do so. As stop-gap solutions go, neither were convincing to say the least.

Leeds have a midfield again - and it isn't one which relies on the homegrown hero, so much so that in his absence it struggles to function, or requires a metronomic Klich-type individual to play 92 games in succession. Farke has options, each as good as the last. At long last.

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