Leeds United: Where the Whites need to strengthen and who fits the bill

Stuart Dallas.
Stuart Dallas.
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As the January transfer window looms, YEP chief football writer Phil Hay discusses the key positions that require attention, and looks at potential targets for head coach Steve Evans.

Six points from the play-offs was Steve Evans’ projection by the time Leeds United reached the January transfer window and a victory over MK Dons would leave the club no more than seven back.

Ipswich Town’s visit to Burnley on Saturday will ensure that some are dropped above them.

United’s head coach said he had no expectation of Massimo Cellino funding transfers next month if Leeds were a long way off the pace, but Evans’ work in the market during the past few weeks suggests he is optimistic of twisting Cellino’s arm.

According to Evans, he would settle for three new players in the FIFA window; four in an ideal scenario, two as a minimum and all of those on top of a deal to extend Liam Bridcutt’s loan from Sunderland until the end of the season.

“I want to see-in 2016 in a really positive way and then I’ll be knocking on someone’s door asking for my Christmas presents,” Evans joked after Tuesday’s draw with Derby County. I know we’re trying to strengthen because I was involved in telephone calls today but it’s going to be tough because I only want players who’ll make us better. Let’s be honest, it took me longer to get Liam Bridcutt in than it did to find out who shot someone in EastEnders! But we got him.”

With the January window about to open, the YEP looks at the areas of the squad which United’s boss is most likely to target:

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STRIKER

Chris Wood has had the odd poor game but his general performance is not a problem and not worth the criticism he has taken. He is struggling with his finishing, as anyone can see, but he showed real instinct on Tuesday night, peeling nicely off Richard Keogh and beating Lee Grant with a clinical downward header. That goal should lift his head but, as has happened with other players at Leeds in previous seasons, Wood is suffering from an over-reliance on him. In Evans’ current formation there is no safer alternative as a lone forward and it is telling that by striking three times in the past fortnight, Sam Byram has already outscored every Leeds player with the exception of Wood and Mirco Antenucci.

Evans likes Peter Crouch and has enquired about the England international – peripheral at Stoke City and rarely used this season – but Crouch’s wage is astronomical by the standards of the Championship and United are not placing many eggs in that basket. Norwich City’s Kyle Lafferty, a long-term target of Evans’, is more affordable and arguably more attainable and might well be Evans’ main port of call. Lafferty, too, is out of favour at Carrow Road and seems keen to remain in England despite interest in him from abroad.

CENTRE-BACK

There are times when Liam Cooper, Sol Bamba and Giuseppe Bellusci look more than adequate at Championship level but there is no disguising the errors that continue to flow in front of Marco Silvestri.

Bellusci made one at Nottingham Forest last Sunday, Bamba was partly culpable for Jeff Hendrick’s finish against Derby and one of United’s biggest problems this season has been the concession of soft goals. It is not that Leeds are excessively leaky – Ipswich Town have shipped more than United – but the fact that teams aren’t asked to do enough to score them. Uwe Rosler wanted an additional centre-back in August and was keen on Leicester’s Liam Moore before Moore went on loan to Bristol City.

Evans would no doubt like to see more surety in the middle of his defence. Leeds are well-served at full-back with Charlie Taylor and a fit Gaetano Berardi but additional competition in between would not hurt and nor would an extension of Bridcutt’s deal. Leeds have lost one game in seven with Bridcutt in the team.

WINGER

Stuart Dallas is as close as anyone at Leeds to rivalling Charlie Taylor for player-of-the-year after 24 games. The Northern Ireland international is top-end Championship standard, an out-and-out winger in the proper sense and a good source of service from both sides of the pitch.

What marks him out beyond that is his fitness and his defensive workrate. Dallas is clearly a player who Evans would field 46 times a season without thinking twice but United appear to be lacking a second winger to complement him or a winger who Evans is willing to depend on. Sam Byram’s form is as good as it has been for months but it is no secret that Leeds will sell him if the right offer arises in January.

While Byram could equally stick around until the end of the season, it doesn’t help Evans to be relying on someone who might leave in the blink of an eye next month.

As for Jordan Botaka, the 22-year-old has not made United’s squad since their trip to Charlton Athletic and Evans seems reluctant to hang his hat on him.

With Dallas on the left wing, a similar maintstay on the right would strengthen that side of the field considerably, improve the service to Wood and others and give Evans more flexibility to alter his formation and play two up front.

Competent wingers don’t come cheap but the £1.3m paid to Brentford for Dallas is starting to look like a very neat investment.

Pontus Jansson heads in the winner against Norwich. PIC: Simon Hulme

Big-match verdict: United’s six-week run reels in the top six