Jesse Marsch and Leeds United: A Calculated Risk
Ask Leeds United fans which game was their favourite during the Marcelo Bielsa era, and you’ll likely receive a range of answers. Whether it was Stoke at home in Bielsa’s first competitive game, a 5-0 thrashing of promotion rivals West Brom, a snatch and grab at the Etihad last season, or a win away at Swansea that all but secured a return to the Premier League, there are a host of games in the last four years that stand out.
These matches will live long in the memory not just for the results, but the way they were won. Bielsa changed the entire ethos at the club, transforming players, fans, and the city alike. That is not common, and neither is the bond that Bielsa formed with the fanbase.
Many Leeds fans have reacted, understandably, with a real sense of disappointment and apprehension towards the decision made my chairman Andrea Radrizzani. As the news was announced, some fans were already at Elland Road to protest rumours of Bielsa’s exit, and others headed to Leeds’ training ground to say goodbye to the Argentinian in person.
In Bielsa, many fans had found the manager and team they had been missing for years: a rare mix of reliability and innovation, success and elegance. At their peak Bielsa’s team were a joy to behold, and it will take time to adjust to a new manager with new ideas.
Any appointment that follows such a remarkable tenure will inevitably feel like a step-down. That is not a slight on incumbent manager Jesse Marsch, but a nod to the miraculous revival that has taken place at Leeds since 2018. Bielsa’s shoes are the biggest to fill in West Yorkshire since Don Revie’s, and Marsch has a tough job on his hands considering Leeds’ current trajectory.
Since a 1-0 loss to fellow relegation candidates Newcastle, Leeds have conceded 21 goals in six games, replying with only five of their own (three of which came away to Aston Villa) and picking up just one point in the process. On current form, they look like a broken side who are destined for relegation, lacking the ideas and creative spark that so often saw them showered with praise over the last three seasons.
It has been a miserable season from an injury perspective as well and they are still without key stars including Kalvin Phillips, Liam Cooper, and Patrick Bamford. However, Phillips and Cooper are reportedly making good progress and last weekend saw a return to the bench for Bamford. A return of three players who were essential to Bielsa’s successes is a welcome reprieve, and so was Leeds’ spirited performance in their 1-0 defeat to Leicester.
Although the result condemned Leeds to their fifth loss in in a row, Leeds’ performance was improved and included a measured defensive showing, the likes of which were a distant memory under Bielsa.
Marsch’s side vastly outperformed Leicester’s Expected Goals (xG) by 2.14 to 0.34, and with better composure in front of goal Leeds should have taken more from the game. Whilst the directive for the new manager is points, and quickly, it is hard to argue with Marsch’s assessment that if Leeds continue to play like that, and with the return of their instinctive goal scorer Bamford, they will have enough to stay up. The American was bullish and confident after the match and appears to be more than ready for a long-term venture in the Premier League.
Marsch made a name for himself through the Red Bull club network which saw his manage all three of New York Red Bulls, RB Salzburg, and RB Leipzig over the course of six years. His first two stints in America and Austria were undoubtedly successes. In his first season at New York, he won Major League Soccer coach of the year, and went on to win two domestic doubles at Salzburg, albeit it with a team whose resources vastly outweigh the competition and a lack of success at European level.
His reign in Germany is less flattering. The Leipzig owners ended Marsch’s relationship with Red Bull after just 17 matches as they were struggling to pick up results domestically and in Europe. A tactical switch from the possession-based style of Julian Nagelsmann has often been cited as a major factor.
By contrast, Marsch has been touted as something of a continuity candidate at Leeds. Bielsa’s sacking was not a rejection of his methods and abilities but rather a gamble on a reverse of form sparked by a different coach. What remains to be seen is how similar these new ideas will be to a squad which has known nothing other than Bielsa’s man-to-man high press for three and a half seasons.
The concept of ‘pressing’, despite being one of the most popular contemporary forms of defensive structure, is often placed under one umbrella. Yet the differences in Marsch and Bielsa’s style lie directly within their unique forms of pressing.
Bielsa’s man marking system encourages players to follow their man across the field, often pulling players out of position, and trusting that a well drilled teams can rotate their positions effectively enough to plug any gaps that might arise. This style of pressing is one that has served them so well in the past, notably in their top-half finish in a stunning first season back in the Premier League, but has proven unprofitable this season, in which individual performances have been well below par.
By contrast, Marsch opts for a zonal form of pressing. The American encourages his players to press high and transition quickly in a 4-2-2-2 formation. Instead of focussing on marking players, the Leeds squad will likely be asked to structure themselves zonally based on the position of the ball at any given time.
Although there are technical differences, the values of Marsch’s high-intensity style sounds strikingly familiar to those of Bielsa. Leeds’ players will still be encouraged to work hard for each other, both on and off the ball, and to win the ball back high up the pitch. As was demonstrated through Leeds’ set up at Leicester, his team will be instructed to attack in packs based on triggers, with fullbacks Choudhury and Thomas coming under sustained pressure at the King Power Stadium.
Marsch’s style, then, may prove exactly what this Leeds team needs. Not too great a change in tactic to confuse and disrupt at this late stage of the season, but with some different concepts of pressing and marking which may provide a fresh impetus which feels desperately needed at the club. If they can combine a tweaked attacking structure with greater defensive stability, Leeds still have the time and enough points on the board to save themselves.
Come the end of the season, we may look back at this appointment as a calculated risk which kept Leeds in the topflight and one which will provide the new manager with a full summer to prepare for next season. Yet the distinct possibility remains that Leeds will sink towards relegation, an unmitigated disaster with serious financial implications.
To avoid the unthinkable Marsch does not yet need to create the exciting atmosphere and special relationships cultivated by Bielsa. Instead, he must find a way to get this leaky Leeds side to dig-in and start grinding out some results. The romance can wait for now.
Image Credit: Leeds Live