You can’t accuse Jesse Marsch of being unambitious. He replaced Julian Nagelsmann at RB Leipzig, and Nagelsmann had only left for Bayern Munich — one of the biggest jobs in the world — and is considered maybe the leading young genius on the European continent (whether this letterman’s jacket is evidence of that, I leave to you).
And now after that didn’t work, Marsch is jumping to a tougher league, with a far less talented team, following a manager whose name will live on forever with fans, and he has to keep them from getting relegated. Oh, and they’ve lost their last four games by a combined 17-2, so morale isn’t exactly high.
But hey, only one way to go from there?
Marsch was hired to replace Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds United yesterday, and he’s basically showing up to a house on fire and being told to get it ready for a dinner party. As mentioned above, Leeds are in about as terrible of form as you can be. They sit 16th in the league, two spots above the relegation zone, but the teams directly below them (Everton and Burnley) both have two games in hand on them and only trail by one and two points, respectively. It’s a real mess.
And while Bielsa probably had seen his players check out on him, he is a club legend. He’s the manager who got Leeds back into the Premier League after 16 years. He’s the one who guided them to a 9th place finish last season. He’s the one who authored a playing style that everyone adored. The players may want to hear a new voice, but Marsch’s runway with the fans and media isn’t going to be all that long following Bielsa’s footsteps. And that would have been the case without the bias American managers face from the English press and players (ask Chris Armas how it’s going for him in Manchester).
Still, Marsch might be as well-positioned to step in as anyone. One, there might have been some air in Leeds’s finish last season. It was a strange season, with barely an offseason before it, with matches crunched together like never before. Bielsa certainly kept his team more fit than just about anyone, which would benefit them greatly when everyone else had players dropping like flies. That’s obviously led to problems this year, as Leeds have gone most of the season without Patrick Bamford, Kalvan Phillips, and Robin Koch, the entire spine of the team.
Second, the shift in tactics from Bielsa to Marsch isn’t seismic, but the kind of difference could matter hugely. Bielsa, famously, was about the most stubborn man in the world and employed a high-intensity, high-pressing, man-marking style all over the field. Every outfield player is assigned someone to mark and close down, and to do so furiously. In Bielsa’s mind, as long as the players are fit enough, and well-drilled enough, the talent difference shouldn’t matter and every opponent should be overwhelmed by the sheer intensity of his system.
When teams first saw it, it worked for the most part. Especially as teams last year were tired and injured and playing in front of no one to boost the adrenaline. But once teams got a whiff of this, it became easy to tear through Leeds. One breakdown would lead to several more, as Leeds players would have to leave their assignment to cover for someone who just lost theirs. You could pull them all over the field with a striker dropping deep or a midfielder shaking his man with a dribble or whatever else. Think of what dribble penetration does to an NBA defense, except on a soccer field where even giving up one score greatly changes things.
And there is a talent difference for Leeds, especially without Phillips and Bamford. They have the 19th-most expensive squad in the Premier League, and really only Raphinha is rated as a prime target by Europe’s elite. When they couldn’t overwhelm opponents through sheer want-to, the gap in skill becomes all that much clearer.
Marsch also employs a high-intensity, high-pressing, direct style, but it’s not man-marking. The reason things didn’t work out for him at Leipzig was that management had supplied him with a roster that wasn’t really built to press all over the field and work the ball toward the goal as quickly as possible. They were built to keep it and pass it around.
At Leeds, Marsch will find a team already built to play his furious style, just in need of a tweak. Marsch will have them pressing the ball instead of the man, and having them return to positions instead of covering for each other’s individual assignment. The idea of not having to stick with one guy all match long might sound like paradise to the Leeds players.
Still, Marsch isn’t going to be blessed with a new goalscorer, and until Bamford is healthy that’s going to be an issue (and that’s if he comes back at all). Leeds have only scored 29 goals in 26 games. And they’ve given up 60, the most in the Premier League by five. Marsch might, might be able to smooth out the defensive problems somewhat by altering how Leeds press, but enough? And then how’s he going to get the ball into the net if he can do that?
Given how Leeds had basically given up in their last few matches, it’s clear that the players wanted something different. Marsch is the polar opposite personally to Bielsa, sunny and jovial where Bielsa constantly looked and acted like the personification of acid reflux. Maybe that’s enough.
But this will certainly be Marsch’s last chance in Europe. Should he not keep them up, he’ll have lost two jobs in a calendar year in two different top five leagues. There likely won’t be a third. And you can make whatever you want out of his record with Salzburg. Yes, two league titles in two years, but Salzburg are by far the biggest team in Austria. Marsch’s teams flamed out in the group stage in the Champions League in both tries, with bigger teams kicking them aside rather easily. And in two whacks at the Europa League, they won one round.
While it’s not his fault or his responsibility, it’ll probably handicap American managers in Europe even more if he isn’t successful.