December last year was a brutal month for Leeds United but that side seemed better placed mentally and positionally in the table than Steve Evans’ current Whites side. Phil Hay reports.
By this stage of his reign and this stage of the loan market, Steve Evans thought Leeds United’s squad would be stronger than it is. Instead, the club’s head coach is in a position where even injured players will come under consideration when he picks his team for Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
Evans has less than 72 hours to magic something from the emergency loan window and the inactivity of the past five weeks makes the arrival of new signings before Thursday’s deadline seem less and less likely. Evans’ approach at QPR this weekend will largely depend on existing resources at Elland Road.
The 53-year-old’s opinion of the squad he took on from Uwe Rosler has been clear from the outset: talented but thin in areas and short of nous in others. He went as far as saying after a defeat to Blackburn Rovers last month that without any help from the loan market, United might find that avoiding relegation becomes more of a struggle than the club would like.
Certain statistics bear his warning out. Leeds found themselves in grave trouble at the halfway point of last season but at this juncture 12 months ago, with 17 Championship games played, the club were a point better off. December was a brutal month for United and Evans needs his players to keep their results in order in the lead-up to Christmas.
His options are most stretched defensively, to the extent that Evans admitted after Leeds’ 1-0 defeat to Rotherham United that captain Sol Bamba – absent with a fractured small toe – could feature at QPR “if we need him to.”
“It’s perhaps a week to 10 days for Sol,” Evans said. “He’s got a minute fracture in his toe and it’s not really a problem. We’d prefer him there than not, of course.”
Evans is highly likely to ask for the same commitment from Charlie Taylor, the left-back who contracted glandular fever last month and has not played since October 3.
Taylor is due to train this week but the 22-year-old anticipated that his comeback from a debilitating virus would be made against Hull City on December 5. Gaetano Berardi’s red card at home to Rotherham leaves Evans with no alternative.
Berardi incurred a three-match ban after clashing with Leon Best in the second half of Saturday’s defeat and will not be eligible again until Leeds travel to Wolverhampton Wanderers on December 17. Beyond the rest of his back four, Sam Byram is the only other full-fit defender available to Evans.
It was not surprising to hear Evans say that additions in that area were needed from the loan market.
Evans has plenty to consider before Saturday, not only in respect of his own squad but also in respect of QPR’s state.
Rangers are technically managerless and in the hands of caretaker Neil Warnock, the former Leeds boss.
His assistant and another ex-United manager, Kevin Blackwell, took QPR to Middlesbrough on Friday night after “personal reasons” saw Warnock miss the game. On the pitch, QPR have not scored in four games. Their leading scorer Charlie Austin is nursing a calf injury. Evans will see an opportunity at Loftus Road but he dismissed the idea of dramatic changes, despite Saturday’s defeat to a Rotherham team who were bottom of the Championship before kick-off.
“You never take players out your team on the basis of one performance where they don’t turn up and deliver,” Evans said.
“I looked at Stuart Dallas and he was quite ineffective (against Rotherham) but he’s been very effective in the Cardiff and Huddersfield games so you wouldn’t dream of removing him.
“We also have to see who we’re going to bring in. That would influence what we might change.”
Leeds were guilty of missing chances against Rotherham but Evans pointed the finger more strongly at his midfield, conceding that it “didn’t get going.”
He described 18-year-old Lewis Cook as a “shadow of himself” after a spell away with England’s Under-19s and said Alex Mowatt had also been quiet having figured prominently with eye-catching goals in wins over Huddersfield and Cardiff.
“But that’s the younger players,” Evans said. “You have more concerns about the more experienced players when they don’t produce. Kids will have ups and downs.”
That explained in part why Evans was targeting older heads in the loan market: Sunderland’s Liam Bridcutt and Kyle Lafferty, the Northern Ireland international who is on the periphery of Norwich City’s Premier League season. Lee Camp, who shone for Rotherham at Elland Road on Saturday, was among the goalkeepers who the United’s boss looked at as potential competition for Marco Silvestri.
Evans said he would be “disappointed” if weeks of enquiries and repeated discussions with Leeds owner Massimo Cellino failed to result in a single signing. He cut a deflated figure after Rotherham – the club he managed for three and a half years and quit in September – left Elland Road with a precious win.
“I’m very low and I’ll be low for a couple of days,” Evans said. “But it’s my job to go in and pick people up. The one thing you learn in this division is that if you lose a game – especially at a club like Leeds United – criticism is going to come.”