Uwe Rosler called it in August. “Thin in areas.” Leeds United were and the club still are.
When it came to chasing Saturday’s game against MK Dons they fought the clock with no fewer than four players out of position, or out of their most natural positions.
Divide the talent of individuals with the shallow depth of the squad at Leeds and a realistic calculation equates to their league position: 13th in the Championship, nine points behind the play-offs. They are comfortable in the division but stretched when it comes to forcing the pace so this transfer window matters. It should matter to Leeds as much as it matters to most other Championship clubs.
Steve Evans has done well to simultaneously keep this season alive while putting relegation a long way to bed. His side have been unlucky to suffer in the way that trailing teams do – at the mercy of results above them – and they lie as far back from sixth place now as they did before the start of their seven-game unbeaten run. Without that excellent sequence they would be treading water or worse. Games away at Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday next week are critical, a route back into the mix, but Evans is throwing for the bullseye as other managers aim for double top.
His view that Cellino should only bankroll signings in January if a play-off position is genuinely attainable was honourable but back-to-front. It undoubtedly makes sense for Leeds to shovel money at their squad if they are on the threshold of the top six but it makes more sense again if they are a long way from the running. The club could trust to luck with a team who are close. They should be more concerned by a team who are not.
Massimo Cellino’s future is a subject for another day – and the Football League is not killing itself to clarify his position quickly – but he did not buy United with the aim of sloshing about in the Championship for years. The need for constant development is staring him in the face. Leeds might still be a Championship side in May but they would be a stronger Championship side with the help of intelligent recruitment this month, supporting a group who have found a backbone under Evans. The club would have a more advanced perspective when the summer window opens. This fragile season does not change the fact that Leeds operated methodically and sensibly in the market six months ago, albeit without signing enough players. At the time it was considered to be the start of a long process.
Promotion from the Championship is a game of chance; a calculated one but a game of chance nonetheless. Recruitment has never been an exact science but done properly and done with commitment, it extends the period in which clubs can compete. Derby County and Middlesbrough fell short last season but were strong enough and organised enough to pick up the chase again in August. It is difficult to finance promotion in one push, if not impossible, but as Leicester proved, the long game tends to pay off eventually. Even Bournemouth’s arrival in the Premier League was achieved with purposeful steps.
Evans gives the impression that he has a core of players – 15, 16, something like that – who he trusts enough to hang his hat on. Even within that group he could do with more: a centre-back who knows how to murder an attack, a striker who has the necessary talent and versatility to replace Chris Wood and give Evans a choice of formations. The reason Charlie Taylor finished on the left wing against MK Dons was that Stuart Dallas toiled and Evans had no other way of substituting him. Jordan Botaka, at this stage, does not seem to be ticking his head coach’s boxes. On Saturday, Evans was crossing fingers with Souleymane Doukara and also with Lee Erwin, on Erwin’s first appearance in more than a month. Back in the day Jermaine Beckford found isolated introductions impossible to cope with. He played at first like a hopeful throw of the dice, which is essentially what Beckford was.
The obvious conclusion is that Leeds were not and are not set-up for promotion this season. The improbable does happen, and it is evident from Evans’ attitude that he is less content with the idea of a steady top-10 finish than Rosler was, but United ought not to be blinded by the play-offs in this window. In the circumstances, and with the odds so steep, Leeds need players who will pull them in the direction of the top six per se, not just between now and May.
With a view to a permanent deal, Liam Bridcutt’s extended loan is a very good start, not least because other clubs were having a nibble at him. If football judges head coaches on their transfers then Evans’ only signing to date has done him credit. So, in truth, did some of Rosler’s but when the Championship goes to form, one solid transfer window is not enough for a manager. Three is a much fairer timeframe and if Middlesbrough go up this season, Aitor Karanka will have benefitted from four. And money, of course, but then Cellino cannot be accused of never spending money. It is simply the case than in 20 months of ownership too many signings made under him have drifted into the ether, leaving the credible Championship stock to stand out in isolation. In no way should Leeds think of this season as dead – not yet and not while the middle third of the Championship looks so sluggish – but nor should they use the transfer window for the sole benefit of the next four months. They might find that to be a false economy.