If there were American coaches who were hoping that Jesse Marsch could be the first through the wall as a Yank managing in the big five leagues in Europe, they might be discussing a retreat right now.
Marsch’s Leeds United lost again on Sunday, 3-2 to Fulham, their eighth straight game without a win and their fourth straight loss.
Generally, when the fans start singing about wanting your exit and longing for the guy who came before you, there’s no way back. The atmosphere becomes poisonous and spreads to the players, if it hasn’t already. And those fans aren’t going to be placated by what the stat sheets say.
Because those stat sheets say that Marsch’s Leeds aren’t as bad as the results and the standings say. Except that’s the ultimate ammunition for the “Watch the game, nerd!” crowd. But it’s true. Leeds’ expected-goal difference for the season is ninth-best in the league, which is in direct opposition to their 18th place standing right now. Only once in their last four losses have they not gotten the better of the xG in the match. On Sunday, they had way more of the ball (58 percent to 42 for Fulham), more shots, more passes. Same story the week before, and the same story the week before that. Leeds are doing the things before the things that matter quite well.
Except… the things that matter. Leeds can’t finish, and Leeds can’t defend. Watch Fulham’s goals on Sunday and it looks like they’re playing against crash-test dummies. Look at how easy all this was before Willian had a tap-in:
And Leeds didn’t do much to address this half of the field in the summer. They brought in Tyler Adams and Marc Roca to protect the backline in midfield, and those two have been fine to good, but the actual defense wasn’t addressed. That trench you built in front of the castle walls is nice and all, but matters a lot less if the walls have giant holes in it. Robin Koch and Liam Cooper have been the most commonly used central defensive pairing, and Leeds’s shots per game and shots on target against per game are middle of the pack in the league. Still, no central defenders were added in the transfer market.
Where the problem might really lie, defensively, is that Marsch’s keeper sucks mondo ass. Illan Meslier gave up seven more goals than his post-shot expected goals said he should have last season, and he’s already at -2.9 barely a quarter into this season. He doesn’t make any big save Leeds needs to turn a match. That -2.9 mark is third-worst in the league.
The problem of “finish” is just as acute at the other end of the field. Again, Leeds’ rank in shots and shots on target per match are in the top half of the league. But they can’t get anything to touch twine. The attack was basically hinging on the very rickety legs of Patrick Bamford. Bamford only played in nine games last season because of injury, and while his 17 goals from the previous season suggest he can be a linchpin striker, it’s still only one season of proof.
Luis Sinisterra was brought in during the summer, but his biggest tally was 12 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie, where you get 10 goals for spelling your name correctly (Jozy Altidore will agree). Brendan Aaronson was another to support the attack, but Aaronson doesn’t score all that much, and his contributions are more through energy and causing chaos with his running than genuine inspiration.
Well, Bamford hasn’t been able to locate which way he’s facing so far this season in nine appearances, and there’s no one else stepping up. He’s had a couple one-on-ones the past two matches that would have swung this for Leeds and blew them both. He’s just out of sorts, and his lack of pace has always been something of an issue. Leeds needed a Bamford-insurance plan in their transfer dealings, and they didn’t get one.
But that’s too easy to absolve Marsch. Here’s a problem: They surrendered two goals after the 74th minute against Fulham. They gave up goals in the last 10 minutes of the first half against both Leiceister and Arsenal. They gave up a winner in the 76th minute to Palace before that. Marsch’s team just runs out of gas thanks to his high-intensity style.
And teams have worked it out. They slow things down for a while, play around Leeds’ press for half-an-hour or so, let them punch themselves out, and then profit. And Leeds don’t have much punch to come back. They had one shot on target in the last 15 minutes on Sunday. One shot on target in the last 20 against Leicester. Two shots in the last 15 against Arsenal, and all of these while trailing. Marsch hasn’t really shown a Plan B when his “get the fucking thing up the fucking field fucking quick” main tactic doesn’t work.
The longing for Marcelo Bielsa by the Leeds fans isn’t fair. Leeds definitely would have been relegated if Bielsa had stayed, as they were getting utterly throttled week in and week out. But that’s the gig at Elland Road, considering Bielsa was the guy to get them up and keep them there for a season. And Marsch’s humble-guy-act-as-long-as-the-cameras-are-on act wasn’t going to win too many people over. The huddle on the field after his first match, his touchline antics, his habit of inspirational quotes all give a very big, “LOOK WHAT I’M DOING!” feel. It’s going to lessen his runway.
The schedule will as well. They go to Liverpool and Spurs before the World Cup break, and also host a buoyant Bournemouth, too. Fans may accept a loss at Anfield, but should they not beat a recently promoted side at home no matter current form, and that could be curtains. If it isn’t, Leeds face a gauntlet of City and Newcastle right out of the World Cup break. It might get worse before it gets better.
Marsch’s ways didn’t work at Leipzig because he wanted to run a Red Bull system for a team that wasn’t really constructed. Now he wants to run a Red Bull system in a league that is almost certainly too punishing to survive in doing so. At the end of the day, Marsch’s bonafides are two league titles with the richest club in Austria that’s continued to win that league without him. If a beachhead for American managers was going to be established in Europe, maybe Marsch wasn’t the guy to do it. No matter what the analytics say.