It’s hard to judge just how important it is that an American manager finally “makes it” in Europe. It would certainly be cool, but for what it means for men’s American soccer overall trails by miles to how players make it in the world’s best leagues. The US needs a load of players making a fist of it to construct a national team roster that can make serious noise either in November in Qatar or down the road. But you only need one manager, and even then thanks to US Soccer’s weird and bumbling ways, we don’t even know if they’d hire that guy. It’s another frontier for the Yanks to conquer, but what it means in the long run…can’t tell you.
Jesse Marsch seems like a good guy. He’s certainly genuine, and knows exactly what he got into with Leeds United. His ambition to not pack it in after getting fired by Leipzig and wanting another crack in Europe is to be commended. Especially as he then took the step up from a well-financed Bundesliga team to the tougher Premier League with a team that was seriously up against it. So whether it matters greatly or not, it’s natural to want Marsch to do well.
When he was hired, it seemed a decent enough opportunity as far as almost being in a vacuum. While Marcelo Bielsa will always be one of the most beloved figures in Leeds history for getting them promoted and keeping them there for a season, Marsch took over a team that had a defense that would charitably be described as “Cottonelle.” They were regularly shipping four, five, six goals per game and sometimes lucky to keep it that low. To boot, the constant flapping of Everton, Burnley, Norwich, and Watford (and even Brentford at the time) meant that Marsch didn’t have to improve that much to keep Leeds safe. Then he could wait for the summer to reshape the roster more in the way he would like it, via a dedicated preseason and new signings.
That vacuum might be gone.
Has Marsch improved things? Yeah, a touch. Bielsa’s Leeds were not only shipping goals left and right, but their analytic numbers weren’t too bright either. They weren’t unlucky to be getting their brains beaten in. They were averaging two goals post-expected shot per game, which is astronomical (PSxGA takes into account shot-placement, which simple xGA does not). Marsch has lowered that to 1.6 PSxGA per game, which is hardly good but it’s better. It’s also a little skewed by having a game against Man City in just an eight-game sample. If going by just expected goals against, which doesn’t take shot-placement into effect, Marsch has lowered Leeds’s xGA per game to 1.4 from 2.1. Again, that’s not a great figure, but that’s a hell of an improvement. Leeds’s results have evened out a touch also thanks to keeper Illan Meslier basically stopping every shot he should, which he very much wasn’t under Bielsa (-8.6 PSxGA - GA, the worst mark in the league). All stats from FBRef.com.
But Marsch’s problem is that Leeds aren’t creating much at the other end. They’ve scored nine goals in his eight games, and five of those were against Watford and Norwich, who are already relegated (either officially like Norwich or all but like Watford). Leeds are averaging the exact same 1.3 xG per match that they were under Bielsa. Sure, Marsch much like Bielsa hasn’t had Patrick Bamford at forward and only recently got Kalvan Phillips back, who affects play everywhere on the field greatly. But no one wants to hear your excuses if you get relegated, especially when replacing a demigod to the fans.
The biggest problem for Marsch has been that Burnley also fired their manager, and then suddenly can’t be beat. They’ve taken 10 of 12 points available since they binned Sean Dyche and enacted the modern day College of Coaches. It has zoomed them past Leeds in the table, and leaves Marsch and Leeds in the spot just above the relegation zone. And Everton behind them have a game in hand, and a rousing home win over Chelsea yesterday to build off. We thought Leeds had that win when they came from behind to win 3-2 at Wolves on March 18th, but they’ve only won one of their four games since. The draw at home to Southampton in that run really sticks out.
And what will have Marsch getting awfully urpy is the remaining schedule. Their next game sees them travel to Arsenal, who have a Champions League spot to lock down. Marsch can hope that they’re keeping one eye on their game with Spurs a few days later and can be suckerpunched, but Arsenal don’t really have that luxury. After that, Chelsea visit Elland Road. Sure, Chelsea just coughed up a hairball against Everton, and will have the FA Cup Final just three days later on their minds, but it’s still Chelsea.
Meanwhile, Burnley have Villa twice in the last four games, and Villa have nothing to play for and have looked decidedly uninterested in anything for weeks. Burnley do have a toughie against Spurs in there as well, and end the season with Newcastle. Everton have five games left, and the first four of those are against teams with nothing to play for. Say Leeds don’t get anything from their next two against Arsenal and Chelsea, and Everton get four points from Leicester and Watford (hardly a huge ask, though everything is a huge ask for this version of Everton these days) and suddenly Leeds are two points from safety. Thanks to the way Bielsa’s empire crumbled spectacularly, Leeds’s goal difference is atrocious and essentially acts as a point for both Everton and Burnley (goal-difference is the first tiebreaker). That two point gap that could arise is essentially three.
Marsch will hope to bring it to the last day, when Everton are away to Arsenal and Leeds are away to an on-the-beach Brenford. Marsch still might get Bamford back before the end of the season, but what he can provide after missing most of the season is hopeful rather than expected. And Leeds aren’t sure enough at either end of the field to feel safe in any way.
And Marsch won’t get any leeway from press and fans after replacing Bielsa. This kind of sunny-eyed view of a game where you got pasted 4-0 won’t help, even if it’s mostly right, and plays into the Ted Lasso package that everyone has been so desperate to fit Marsch into and he’s tried to run from.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride.