Leeds United's unsaid full-back difficulty and late January transfer window expectation

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Leeds United supporters are waiting impatiently to discover what 49ers Enterprises will serve up in their first real January transfer window and hoping it's nothing like the last two.

January has been a learning month for the Whites in recent times, thanks to mistakes of a very different nature. The 2021 window taught us very little, given that no one arrived and Leeds carried on their merry way to finish in the Premier League top 10. But the same tactic in 2022 brought a very different result, Bielsa paying with his job for a poor run of results against top six sides having failed to be convinced by the mid-season market options the club put to him. The brush with relegation that followed was too close for comfort, even if the final day escape gave owner Andrea Radrizzani reason to run across the Brentford pitch in celebration. The lesson was that if you don't get your summer strengthening right, January strengthening becomes vital. And if you don't get that right, expect your struggles to continue.

In 2023, as Leeds again battled against relegation, they went for a completely different approach in January. In came Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, on loan, alongside £10m defender Max Wober and Georginio Rutter, a club-record signing for a potential outlay of £35.5m. Of course the club did not pay all of that money up front but as January transfer window commitments go, it felt significant. And yet relegation could not be avoided, for all the management upheaval that followed Marsch's sacking. The lesson was that January strengthening is largely pointless if it's not what you need - McKennie pulled up precisely no trees, Wober looked solid enough but the goals kept flying in at the wrong end and Rutter was deemed not ready by successive managers. Take the long view over the Frenchman as much as you like - he clearly is and will be a big player for the club - but a some way reliable and proven top flight goalscorer is what was needed this time last year.

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Ultimately Leeds have learned that you can do nothing and suffer the consequences, or you can do lots and still suffer even worse consequences. Right now, in the final few days of a window in which they have done nothing in terms of incoming transfers, Leeds sit just two points off the automatic promotion spots and boast an unbeaten January in all competitions. The squad, as it stands, has been good enough to put them there or thereabouts and there is little reason to believe they won't go on to finish in the play-offs at the very least, regardless of January strengthening. But there is an expectation, both inside and outside Elland Road, that this week will bring one or two bits of incoming business, for two reasons. Number one, the squad is small. Number two, it is creaking.

ABORTED MOVE - Sint-Truidense VV defender and recent Leeds United transfer target Daiki Hashioka celebrates after scoring a goal during a Belgian ProLeague first division football match against RWD Molenbeek. Pic: VIRGINIE LEFOUR/Belga/AFP via Getty ImagesABORTED MOVE - Sint-Truidense VV defender and recent Leeds United transfer target Daiki Hashioka celebrates after scoring a goal during a Belgian ProLeague first division football match against RWD Molenbeek. Pic: VIRGINIE LEFOUR/Belga/AFP via Getty Images
ABORTED MOVE - Sint-Truidense VV defender and recent Leeds United transfer target Daiki Hashioka celebrates after scoring a goal during a Belgian ProLeague first division football match against RWD Molenbeek. Pic: VIRGINIE LEFOUR/Belga/AFP via Getty Images

You could see the exits of Jeremiah Mullen, Darko Gyabi, Lewis Bate and the almost-out-the-door Leo Hjelde as a further shrinking of the numbers at Thorp Arch but none of them were considered realistic options by the manager. That he did not consider any of the 21s worthy of a call up for the FA Cup game at the weekend and instead put two goalkeepers on the bench said something about how close those beneath the senior set-up really are to it. What you see with his matchday squad is pretty much what you get now at Leeds United. And within that small squad, Farke runs with a tight first-choice group, relying relentlessly on certain individuals. But the exits of Luke Aying and Djed Spence are different, because they were in his plans until suddenly they were not, for different reasons.

Recent weeks have proved, through injuries to Pascal Struijk and Archie Gray, that in a number of positions Leeds are not very far away from potential problems. In one area Farke has been able to find the answer from within. Struijk's absence has been solved by Ampadu moving back - signing a centre-back to play central midfield will give you that flexibility - and Ilia Gruev coming to the fore in the middle of the park. The return of Liam Cooper gives Farke more cover and the ability to slot Ampadu back into midfield, should he so wish, while Charlie Cresswell's desire to stay and fight for football at Leeds further eases concerns at centre-back.

Where Leeds and peril exist in much closer proximity is in the full-back positions. As temporary as Gray's loss may be, he's the third right-back to be removed from Farke's options since the month began. Gone is Spence, through a failure to meet the totality of the manager's demands, and Ayling followed him out the door so he could play some football at Middlesbrough. Sam Byram and Jamie Shackleton's ability to fill in for Gray is not particularly problematic for footballing reasons but physical reliability ones. In fact of Farke's four full-backs, two of whom are actually midfielders, only Gray has stayed injury free this season - until now. Byram and Junior Firpo are, at long last, fit to battle it out for the left-back spot, but for how long?

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There are notes of Bielsa in how Farke talks about transfer dealings, noting the club's reality and the difficulty in getting what you need in January. Something that has gone unsaid by the manager is how the Spence situation, Leeds' refusal to give game time assurances to Fabio Carvalho and the idea of sitting below a teenage midfielder in the right-back pecking order might amount to a hard sell for potential January full-back targets. There are notes of Bielsa in how Farke deals with problems without the need for transfers, too. Gray at right-back, Byram at left-back, Ampadu at centre-back, Rutter as a 10 and the reintroduction of Patrick Bamford are all ways in which he has managed, rather than paid, his way to results.

The manager has also admitted there is a need, however, and it doesn't take a brilliant footballing mind to see that. It is a simple numbers game. Four full-backs, with too many injuries, into two positions will not always go. So into the market Leeds must surely go. The maths are not so simple when it comes to financial outlay this time, thanks to the Championship's profit and sustainability rules, but there are two loan spots they can use. There are also now only a handful of days in which to use them. Speed is of the essence and the argument that waiting for Premier League dominoes to fall is the best strategy is about to be tested. Do nothing and maybe you'll be fine. This squad got you this far, after all. Do nothing and suffer any kind of negative consequence, and this will be a stick you'll feel over and over again for a long time. Do something and it has to be the right thing, or that will be the stick used for your thrashing. Jean-Kevin Augustin continues to be the spectre at the feast four years on. An attempt to win the race for Japan international Daiki Hashioka was aborted over injury concerns and while it makes sense to only bring in players who can play, any unsuccessful late window moves dial up the external panic. What that, and the interest in Charlie Taylor, Connor Roberts and Ben Godfrey, show though is that at the start of the window's end Leeds, at least, are trying.