When David Hockaday says that nothing in his planning for Leeds United’s season is “etched in stone”, he genuinely means it. The club’s head coach is working on shifting sands at Elland Road, waiting for the ground around him to settle.
Leeds are three games into their pre-season programme but still in the realms of fitness exercises and yet to fully break the back of the transfer market. Hockaday’s tactics and formations, like those used in a fairly painful friendly at Mansfield Town last night, are being used in the knowledge that five or six more players could join his squad before the football matters.
One of those, Federico Viviani, is in the final throes of agreeing a season-long loan from Roma and should officially join United later today. The 22-year-old travelled to Field Mill yesterday with his transfer pending, a spectator at a game which was never a spectacle, and the list of other potential signings continues to evolve too – Andy Delort, a goalscorer who displayed a prolific streak in the French second division last season, the latest to be credibly linked with Leeds.
Viviani is renowned as a playmaker with sharp technical ability and a dangerous free-kick. Delort is a through-and-through striker whose record with Tours in 2013-14 shows 24 goals from 36 matches. Both are the sort of footballers – on reputation at any rate – who Leeds could do with as the Championship term draws nearer.
Two late goals from Jason Pearce and Matt Smith saw off Guiseley over the weekend, on an afternoon when chances generally eluded Leeds, and a Mansfield team with four unnamed trialists in their squad provided more ambitious resistance on a warm and pleasant evening. Hockaday’s players are fit enough and drilled enough but by his own admission, creativity needs to show itself soon. That is Viviani’s strength, according to those who have watched him in Italy.
Last night’s friendly – settled in Mansfield’s favour by a second-half brace from Liam Hearn – was a role-reversal from Saturday’s win over Guiseley: the team used for the final 30 minutes at Nethermoor penned in for a full hour against Mansfield as the push towards full appearances continued. Chesterfield away this weekend is likely to see several players break 90 minutes and might also give the first indication of how Hockaday sees his current team at its best.
“Chesterfield and Swindon (next Tuesday) will give me a real good picture,” Hockaday said after United’s 2-0 victory over Guiseley. “I’m not saying Mansfield won’t but the nearer you get to the start of the season, the closer I’ll get to my starting line-up.”
Viviani’s first chance to find his feet should come at Chesterfield and Gaetano Berardi was given his debut last night, four days after signing on a two-year deal from Sampdoria.
The right-back attended Guiseley without playing and Hockaday named him on the bench at Mansfield but declined to use him again after his original plan was broken up by early injuries to Noel Hunt and Lewis Walters.
Hunt has found himself in the thick of recent interviews given by United owner Massimo Cellino, left in no doubt that he is part of the furniture at Elland Road despite a difficult first season here.
Cellino talked last week of Hunt blossoming again, about the possibility of him becoming prolific, but the striker was bothered by a tight hamstring from an early stage at Field Mill and conceded defeat in his attempt to run it off after 16 minutes. A similar strain was at the root of some of Hunt’s problems last season and Leeds will diagnose the severity of his latest injury today.
Nine minutes later, the situation got worse. Walters was injured off the ball, pulling up in a similar fashion to Hunt, and despite asking to stay on the pitch, he was promptly removed when he headed a half-chance wide and crumpled to the floor in a heap.
Those two unexpected losses brought Tommaso Bianchi and Dominic Poleon into a game which was already going nowhere.
The first half passed without a chance of note for 41 minutes, with Leeds trapped in a narrow system. Rudy Austin drove one free-kick into the crowd and Simon Heslop did likewise at the other end, clearing Stuart Taylor’s crossbar by the height of the stand behind it.
Taylor made only one save, from a curling cross which his defence left for him.
Fergus Bell eventually produced a better stab at goal with a 41st-minute shot which bounced a yard wide and Alex Fisher wasted an opportunity to steer the ball into an empty net a minute later when Taylor found himself exposed 12 yards in front of his line. Leeds rallied briefly after that and Bianchi should have scored when he met Sam Byram’s cut-back with a loose finish beyond a post.
The pace of the game rose noticeably after half-time and Mansfield’s trialist keeper denied Matt Smith with his legs after Luke Murphy slotted the ball through a hole in the home defence. Murphy began to see possession just as his shift ended but Hockaday stuck to his strategy and introduced 10 substitutes on the hour.
They fell behind 10 minutes later as another game which looked destined to finish goalless produced a breakthrough late on. Steve Morison sold Marco Silvestri short with a horrible back-pass which committed the keeper to a challenge on one of Mansfield’s trialists.
Silvestri took the players legs and Hearn stepped up to take the penalty, slotting it to the keeper’s right and winning the match at a stroke.
For good measure, Hearn scored again seven minutes from time as United’s defence made a mess of a simple through-ball and allowed him to stab the ball past a helpless Silvestri. An absent Cellino will digest the feedback with interest.
Mansfield: Trialist, Sutton, Dempster, Riley, Beevers, Murray, Heslop, Trialist, F Bell, Palmer, Fisher. Subs: Trialist, A Bell, Marsden, McGuire, Clements, Rhead, Hearn, Trialist.
Leeds United: S Taylor (Silvestri 60), Byram (Thompson 60), Pearce (Lees 60), Wootton (Killock 60), Warnock (C Taylor 60), White (Norris 60), Austin (Tonge 60), Murphy (Cook 60), Hunt (Bianchi 16), Walters (Poleon 25), Smith (Doukara). Sub (not used): Berardi.