Phil Hay: Improving Leeds United starting to look like a squad capable of competing

Giuseppe Bellusci
Giuseppe Bellusci
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Trebles all round after Tuesday’s win at Bournemouth. Even the Highways Agency played a blinder – no road closures and no maddening diversions on the long, four-hour journey home.

Four hours was time enough to take in the best of the night at Dean Court. Giuseppe Bellusci’s wicked free-kick, the resistance of goalkeeper Marco Silvestri, the maturity of Lewis Cook and the reaction to Leeds United’s second and third goals.

Italian, French, English, Swiss; all the nationalities under the European sun but they felt it en masse when the ball flew in twice in the last eight minutes. The euphoria of the players went unnoticed as jaws dropped at Bellusci’s up-and-down finish but it was raw and electric. Their fightback hit the spot, suggesting at least that the majority of United’s signings are here with the best of intentions.

The last time a victory went down so well was so long ago that it barely matters. A spate of ordinary seasons has softened standards to such an extent that a single win at Bournemouth in mid-September is enough to bring the club to life but Leeds rarely do what they did on Tuesday. They are weak away from Elland Road and hopeless on midweek nights. In context it was more than a routine job.

There is much to be made of what we saw at Dean Court. But afterwards you got to thinking about what we didn’t; about what else there is in the background. With September ticking on, we’ve had no sight of Brian Montenegro or Dario Del Fabro and next to nothing of Adryan. Zan Benedicic was blooded last month but not enough for anyone to say whether his game stands up to his reputation as a loanee from AC Milan. They are four players of a certain stock, in the wings and waiting to be used.

So Bournemouth was not the half of it or certainly not the limit of what Leeds possess. The squad need more miles behind them and a system that suits but there are reasons to think it will fall into place. There is scope too for the team to evolve and options in most positions. On the outside they claim this is madcap football, a faceless squad thrown together by the wildcard at the top, but something in Tuesday’s match said maybe, just maybe. Bournemouth were swept away towards the end by the sort of tide Leeds usually drown in.

United’s transfer window was a sensible process insofar as it spread their eggs across many baskets. The club had one fail-safe footballer last season and were deeply fortunate that Ross McCormack was never injured, never suspended and rarely out of the goals. Massimo Cellino admitted himself that in spite of the breakdown in his relationship with McCormack, Leeds owed their Championship status to his 29 strikes. They owed very little to anyone else.

There is no player in United’s current squad with McCormack’s price tag but the sum of the parts at Elland Road is worth more than the squad Cellino inherited. Leeds as yet have no focal point or indispensable player – though Cook looks increasingly like the only specialist in a deep-lying role – and no unfair distribution of pressure. You assumed at the end of August that either Billy Sharp scored goals or Leeds would struggle but he was no more than cog in the machine on Tuesday. Souleymane Doukara and Mirco Antenucci took their chances beautifully with genuinely clever finishes. Sharp should be an asset in the Championship but United don’t need to nail their colours to him. He is droppable in a way that McCormack never was.

The same can be said of Bellusci. The centre-back’s free-kick at Bournemouth was a Hollywood goal but it disguised a very patchy performance. He might still be settling in or creeping up towards the benchmark set by a £1.6m transfer fee, and United’s foreign players – like Cellino himself – are a long way from their comfort zone. But Leeds have an alternative in Liam Cooper who was excellent when he played last month and did not deserve to be benched by David Hockaday. In addition they have Del Fabro, a player who Cagliari rate. Defensively there are decisions to be made about who should be left out. The problem at Leeds has often been who the hell to include.

For as long as it takes him to make his debut, the cry will go up for Adryan. It’s an unlikely scenario to find a team in the Championship biding their time with a Brazilian playmaker. He will feature before long but the feeling at Thorp Arch is that the 20-year-old needs space to acclimatise and adapt. It would be counter-intuitive for someone with Neil Redfearn’s philosophy to hold him back without good cause. Benedicic is in a similar boat. A Milan loanee or not, he’s been less involved under Redfearn than he was under Hockaday, despite the fact that the two men are poles apart in their attitudes. On that basis you can only conclude that Benedicic is not quite ready.

Tim Vickery, the BBC’s South American correspondent, gave an interesting take on Adryan last week, saying the midfielder has been standing still since the days when Flamengo began raving about him. “A dreamboat” Vickery called him – though one with undisputed potential. Of United’s two South American imports, Vickery spoke more highly of Montenegro, saying the Paraguayan striker had come to England too early by joining West Ham United in 2011. Older and more grounded, he predicted that Montenegro would be one of Leeds’ most astute summer signings. Seven games gone and United still have the forward up their sleeve. This might be the first season in years when the club don’t bother with the emergency loan market.

The sobering aspect of the past week is that Leeds were nowhere for an hour at Birmingham on Saturday and lucky to have Bournemouth in sight by half-time. It’s a harsh truth but the reality of transition. They have no head coach and eight players in the starting line-up on Tuesday had never played for the first-team before this season. Six were foreign and one was 17. It sounds like a wing and prayer but it looks and feels like a viable project. Cast your eye over the Championship and you’ll find several clubs on their knees, scratching around in search of the same.

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