18+ | Commercial Content | T&Cs apply | Begambleaware.org
Leeds United could not have imagined a more positive start to the 2017/18 campaign. New owner Andrea Radrizzani wasted no time in endearing himself to the fans, buying back Elland Road and pumping money into the squad. He also appointed Victor Orta as Director of Football and made Thomas Christiansen head coach.
There was serious investment in summer signings to offset the departure of Chris Wood to Burnley, and results were impressive. An unbeaten run of seven games, including five wins and a remarkable six clean sheets, led the club to the Championship summiot.
However, three defeats in their last four has restored a sense of reality. And, while Leeds remain in the play-off spots, they will no doubt be looking to strengthen in January and boost their promotion hopes. Here we look at five players they should target.
Christiansen’s arrival as head coach has come with a number of tactical changes. One has been the slight modification of the system from a more defensive 4-4-1-1 to a 4-2-3-1, with the wide roles now occupied by more creative and attack-minded individuals.
As a consequence of this, Leeds’ productivity in the final third has increased. This is evidenced by the fact their goals per game rate has shot up from 1.33 last season to 1.64 this. And, should they look to add further competition for places in the attacking midfield area in January, they would be wise to consider Benali.
The 25-year-old came through Manchester City’s youth academy but, after his release in 2012, moved to Italy to make his name. He revived his career with Brescia before starring in Serie A with Pescara last term.
Benali was his team’s second-highest attacking contributor with six goals and two assists. He also achieved an exceptional pass success rate of 83.9 per cent that was all the more noteworthy considering his advanced role.
Comfortable in tight spaces, he is able to occupy the area between the opposition defence and midfield well. He is also a proficient dribbler, an intelligent mover and can play almost anywhere behind the front line.
Leeds have always had a strong Scottish connection. Current club captain Liam Cooper, while born in Hull, represents Scotland internationally, and before him the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Gary McAllister, Gordon Strachan, Eddie Gray and Billy Bremner enjoyed great success at Elland Road.
Were the Yorkshire club to look north of the border once again for talent to bolster their ranks in January, one of the first players to catch their eye would surely be McGinn, who has starred for Hibernian in recent years.
Impresively, at just 22, the central midfielder already has more than 200 appearances at club level to his name. He first established himself with St Mirren in 2012/13 before moving to Edinburgh and helping Hibs back into the Scottish Premiership with his dynamic displays.
Combining craft craft with combativeness, McGinn would fit Christiansen’s style of play. He is a capable ball-winner, but he also possesses the technique, stamina and drive to get forward and support attacks when necessary.
One potential issue associated with any attempt to sign McGinn is his price. After his two-goal showing away to Celtic recently, his manager Neil Lennon stated: “I said he was a £5million player and I think he's just put a couple more million on his price tag today.”
Leeds have spent big since Radrizzani came in, but not that big. The highest transfer fee they paid in the summer window was the £3.6million spent to secure Pontus Jansson’s permanent signature. So if they want to improve their midfield options, they may need to look elsewhere.
Olsson could be a more financially viable target. The Swede, who spent time with Arsenal as a youth and made his senior international debut in January, has been in good form back in his home country with AIK this season. And, crucially, he has the qualities Christiansen needs in central midfield.
Leeds had an abundance of rugged, physical ball-winners in this area prior to the beginning of the campaign. Indeed, the twin presence of the developing Kalvin Philipps and Ronaldo Vieira led to the sale of Liam Bridcutt; they simply did not need so many individuals of a similar skill set.
However, Christiansen could do with more creative operators. Eunan O’Kane has filled in this deep-lying role thus far, but the Irishman’s form has wavered. Olsson arguably has superior control, awareness and passing ability. He is able to receive the ball from defenders and play through opposition pressure.
Additionally, at 22, he also has greater potential. This is all the more relevant considering the average age of Leeds’ summer signings was 24.9.
Wood was absolutely integral to Leeds’ promotion push last season. The New Zealander’s 27 league goals accounted for just over 44 per cent of the team’s total. Behind him in the scoring charts were Kyle Bartley, Souleymane Doukara and Pablo Hernández with six each.
So, when the hitman moved to Burnley for a fee of around £15million, signing an adequate replacement became a matter of grave importance. Fortunately, the capture of Pierre-Michel Lasogga appears to have done the trick; the 25-year-old has notched three goals in five Championship outings since joining on loan from Hamburg.
However, beyond the burly German, Leeds lack true depth at centre-forward. Caleb Ekuban and Jay-Roy Grot are still in the formative stages of their respective careers and, while Kemar Roofe and Samu Saíz could fill in, neither are natural line-leaders.
Sol could be the solution to this problem. Having come through the Real Madrid academy he went on to score consistently for the Spanish giants’ ‘C’ team before doing similar work with Villarreal’s ‘B’ team. Ultimately, he never made it in La Liga, but he has thrived in Holland.
The 25-year-old joined Willem II last year and hasn’t looked back. After a debut season that saw him score ten goals in 30 Eredivisie appearances, he has found the net three times in seven games this term. Evidently, he is a fairly reliable finisher, but he would also bring other noteworthy traits to Leeds’ front line.
Firstly, he is physically strong and possesses intelligent hold-up and link-up play. This is of vital importance to Christiansen’s tactics, with the sole hitman charged not only with finding goals, but with bringing team-mates into attacks. Secondly, Sol is a willing defender, which would be valuable to a Leeds team that are pressing higher than they were in 2016/17.
Perhaps the area of Leeds’ squad most glaringly in need of reinforcements is central defence. Beyond Jansson and Cooper there is a simple lack of numbers, with Matthew Pennington, on loan from Everton, the only obvious back-up.
Stephens has struggled for game time at Southampton this season, falling behind Maya Yoshida, Wesley Hoedt and Liverpool transfer target Virgil van Dijk in the pecking order. The Englishman rarely features even on the substitutes’ bench, so a move away may be beneficial at this point in his career.
The 23-year-old may be too expensive for Leeds to sign permanently, but a loan deal could work out for all parties. And the player would fit right in to Christansen’s setup with his technical ability and passing.
This season, Stephens has averaged more passes per game than both Jansson and Cooper at a respectable completion rate of 80.4 per cent. He has also averaged more dribbles per game than the Yorkshire side’s incumbent pairing put together.
These statistics show him to be a capable ball-player who is able to aid build-up in different ways, namely through incisive passing or by driving at the opposition’s defensive block. These particular qualities would be of real significance to Leeds, who like to establish possession from the back.