Leeds United's festive stress test brings unknown quantity and untried combination into focus
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Now that the club's Christmas advert is out, each and every fixture from here until the New Year's Day outing can be safely classified as a festive one and starting from Saturday there are seven taking place within just 24 days. Blackburn, Sunderland, Coventry, Ipswich, Preston and West Brom reads like a nightmare before, during and after Christmas because Farke's men will have to be at their best every couple of days.
It will be a period that stress tests his squad depth beyond the scenarios and adversity it has come through, to date. The injuries Leeds have had to deal with have all been negotiated simply enough, even without Farke having to deviate too much from his strongest line-up or the side's form suffering unduly. When right-back became an issue, Archie Gray moved there and Glen Kamara came into the midfield. Elsewhere form and availability have been remarkably stable - the front four in particular have locked down their places and Farke has not made a change there for six straight games.
The supporting cast of Jaidon Anthony, Willy Gnonto, Patrick Bamford and Ilia Gruev have recently become just that, brought on in the second half when Farke needs energy, fresh legs, a late goal or to see out a result. The foursome, who all came on against Middlesbrough on Saturday, have enjoyed just nine Championship starts between them and Gnonto earned six of those. Bamford is yet to be named in a starting line-up and the only time the other three were, together, was at Stoke City - Leeds' single loss in their last 10 games.
With his first choice attackers in such good form, Farke is unlikely to want to make wholesale changes at this stage, not when things are going so well and the argument for dropping players is so weak, but the physical toll that December will take might allow him to dip into his squad depth a little more substantially. In most positions the solutions are easy enough to identify because there are known quantities waiting to step in. Djed Spence or Luke Ayling for Gray, Liam Cooper for Pascal Struijk or Joe Rodon, Junior Firpo for Sam Byram and the aforementioned forwards for any of the current front four. What of the midfield, however, and specifically the position Ethan Ampadu has held down for every single minute of every single Championship game so far?
If anyone stands a chance of being the Mateusz Klich Ironman of this team, it is Ampadu. He made his debut for Spezia last season on matchday six and from then on only missed out on starts through a pair of one-game suspensions. Even when he went off injured against Salernitana on October 22, he was back in the line-up eight days later against Fiorentina. It was the same right at the end of the season when Ampadu was forced off in Serie A's penultimate game, only to start a week later at Roma. Before that, at Venezia, it was only ever suspensions that kept him from Serie A involvement. In fact you have to go back to May 2021, when he was with Sheffield United, to find his last injury-enforced spell on the sidelines. That pelvic problem did not stop him from going to the Euros with Wales that summer, however. Whether or not it's his Welshness, as Farke has suggested, that makes Ampadu so durable, he has the look of a man made to play lots of football and he's in a rhythm that Leeds do not want to interrupt.
Say he was to need a rest, though, or become unavailable, then what might Farke do? That might well be where Gruev, as a midfielder with a defensive profile, was always slated to come in. We've seen little of the Bulgarian international thus far, outside of that single start at Stoke and the never-more-than-six-minute cameos as a substitute. He certainly appears to have energy and an appetite for getting hold of the ball, but his ability to do the rest of Ampadu's job remains an unknown Championship quantity. At Stoke he struggled to announce himself, albeit in a changed team that produced a poor collective performance.
Another way around it would be to put Archie Gray next to Glen Kamara in a thus-far untried combination. Kamara has a different profile to that of Ampadu, making more progressive passes and getting on the end of far more of them in the opposition half. A lot of his best work comes in close spaces, with those little bounce passes and simple-looking stuff that allows Leeds to either move forward or prepare to do so. He's a little more offensively minded than his midfield partner, although both are responsible for shot and goal-creating actions. What they are is a good foil for one another, with Ampadu making more tackles, blocks, interceptions and clearances. Gray was also a nice accompaniment for Ampadu, before his switch to right-back, and might be again when Djed Spence is ready to start but at the very least the teenager will give Farke two very good and safe bets for his box-to-box role. Which of Gray and Kamara would make for the best Ampadu replacement is another unknowable.
It might be that this hectic month of fixtures is nothing Leeds' midfield stopper cannot handle and any freshening up that needs to be done will happen elsewhere, if at all. So far, Farke's squad depth has been sufficient for a seven-game winning run at home and third place in the table. Now it must prove enough for its biggest, busiest test.