New strikers hold key to improved season for Leeds United
The big kick-off draws near and the preparations are all but complete for another season of rollercoaster Championship football with Leeds United fans' optimism renewed - but for how long is the big question?
As ever these days it has been a summer of comings and goings - the arrival of a whole new coaching staff and seven players with more set to come, but the loss of three first team regulars from last season and another key player from last year handing in a transfer request balancing all the positivity.
The bookies certainly do not think all the changes will result in a promotion campaign with United easy to back at 12/1 and upwards to go up.
Most expect Leeds to have a much better campaign than last time when they were a bottom half team all the way, but a top six place looks to be ambitious given the quality of opposition with three strong clubs coming down from the Premier League and the likes of Derby, Sheffield Wednesday and Brighton looking well placed to have a real go at promotion.
It is also arguable how much the side has been strengthened in the off season.
The Whites definitely look stronger up front. The hot and cold Mirco Antenucci has departed to be replaced by two strikers who have cost decent money and much could depend on how well they fare.
Kemar Roofe, from League Two, and Marcus Antonsson, from Swedish football, are both gambles to some degree, but have talent and hunger to do well. If they can find the goals that were missing from Leeds last season it will go a long way to shooting them up the table.
With Chris Wood and Souleymane Doukara still at the club this time it looks like United have some strength up front, something that was sadly lacking in 2015-16.
They have strengthened in the wide areas with the loan acquisition of Hadi Sacko to add to Stuart Dallas and Jordan Botaka while this week’s signing of former Spanish international Pablo Hernandez gives them another wing option as well as giving Leeds a quality player if they wish to have someone in a “number 10” role as seems likely.
In goals there has been more strengthening with the arrival of the vastly experienced Robert Green, who seems set to be given the nod to start the season at his former club, QPR, in Sunday’s opener with Marco Silvestri having to fight for his place.
Other new boys are loan signings Kyle Bartley and Matt Grimes, both from Swansea, but it is in defence and midfield that there are the greatest concerns.
Without the hugely talented Lewis Cook, sold for big money to Bournemouth, the midfield looks weaker. His is a big gap to fill, although the possibly imminent arrival of Liam Bridcutt would improve things and if Alex Mowatt can step up and have the big season he needs that would also help.
United are also at least one defender short. Following the departures of Giuseppe Bellusci and Scott Wootton they are left with only three centre backs, including newcomer Bartley, while if Charlie Taylor gets his wish to leave the club they are down to unproven academy players to step in at left-back. Expect steps to rectify the situation in the coming weeks if there are serious intentions of doing something this season.
Completing a full season with the same head coach would be the first step towards something like success with the huge turnover in the past two years being a major reason for the poor fare on offer at Elland Road.
Massimo Cellino hopes he has got the right man now in Garry Monk and the man himself has cut an impressive figure in pre-season, certainly giving everyone the impression he knows what he is doing.
He is confident he can help improve United’s fortunes and is pleased with the way things have gone so far.
He said: “I’m very happy with the players and the way they’ve been improving, but I won’t make any predictions because you can never predict anything in this league.
“You can never say ‘we’ll be this or that this season’ because the league isn’t a formality and it isn’t predictable.
“Outsiders can get themselves up there. It’s happened before and it happens because they’ve got a plan, they’ve got players, they’ve got the right attitude and they trust what they’re doing.
“Over the years, many teams who have been fancied haven’t delivered. This season probably won’t be any different, no matter what people think.
“Where we’re concerned, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I don’t see this as a short-term thing and words are very easy when it comes to talking about promotion.
“But I want the work I do to be good enough to achieve that. It goes without saying and I want that to happen as soon as possible.”
Monk knows what to expect from the long Championship campaign.
He added: “I haven’t managed in the Championship before but I’ve played in it many, many times and I’ve got experience of every league here.
“I know British football and I know what to expect. I know the attitude and the application you need.
“It’s a tough league, there’s no doubting that, but nothing in it is going to shock me or the players. We’ve analysed the other clubs and we’ve looked at everything.
“We’ll be smart and we’ll be well prepared for what we have to do against different teams. But I’d agree that the Championship is on a different level this season.
“It’s going to be the most competitive we’ve seen. There’s obviously a lot of power behind the three teams who’ve come down and every year I genuinely think there are 12 or 13 clubs who have a chance – clubs who can genuinely compete for three places to get promoted.
“We might be talking about even more this time. That’s the reality of the Championship – all that competition in it and only three places to get promoted. It’s the hardest league in the world to get a promotion from, that’s how I’d describe it, and you’ve got some really high-calibre managers in it this season. That’s a good thing.
“It means the league’s on a different level again. I spent the last few years competing against top managers and I’d much rather have that challenge. It’s good for you.”