Normally, when you’re a manager and you save a team from certain relegation, you’d be given a key to the city and have a welcome mat anywhere (and let me tell you from experience, having that in Leeds can lead to a lot of rough mornings). Jesse Marsch isn’t that guy, even though he did save Leeds from certain relegation. One, because he replaced a legend in Marcelo Bielsa, and two, because he comes from a country that is still held with a high level of suspicion in soccer circles (and every other circle, likely).
Marsch didn’t help himself by first proclaiming he’d never seen Ted Lasso, which everyone in the UK was pretty jonesing to lazily label him as. And then filled almost every press conference after that with any inspirational quote he could find on Twitter, which is exactly what that character would do. Even though they barely scraped by to retain their Premier League status, Marsch got there in the end, but he didn’t win a lot of fans over.
And it’s a question of whether buying players from his home country is going to mollify the Leeds supporters and media. But that seems to be his chosen path.
It’s hardly strange for a manager to bring in players he’s familiar with and worked with before, and both Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams, heavily rumored to be joining the former in the coming days, meet that standard. Marsch managed Aaronson in Salzburg, and he managed Adams in New York. And it’s not that either doesn’t fill a need that Leeds has.
The problem for both is that they’ll be replacing perhaps the two most important–and certainly most popular–Leeds players. While Aaronson won’t be billed as a direct replacement for Raphina, it’s likely his Leeds career will start in the forward line, though maybe on the left side instead of the right where Raphina played. But he will be taking that spot. He’s hardly the same type of player, but that won’t stop fans from pointing out what Raphina might have done in a certain situation or spot that Aaronson failed to do. Raphina could dazzle with his dribbling and spectacular goals, whereas Aaronson is more about energy and running off the ball (though he can do some of those Raphina things as well).
Adams will be more direct in taking a predecessor’s spot in the lineup, and that’s Kalvin Phillips, which is going to be the harder task. Phillips came through the Leeds system, is from there, and rose to be an England international. There’s no other type of player that fans latch onto more. And Phillips was the entire pivot for the Bielsa system, which a lot of the Leeds faithful haven’t let go of yet. Not only was Phillips a great defensive midfielder and able to shield his overwhelmed defense, but he wasn’t shy about getting up to the other end either and helping to create chances. That kind of dual role is only capably served by very few in the game.
That’s not what Adams does, though he’s not attack-helpless. Adams is more of a classic defensive midfielder, and he might even play with more energy away from the ball than Phillips did. His positioning is excellent, though he’s more content to make the simple pass to get his team going the other way than joining in counters and attacks himself. There will be fewer fireworks with Adams than from Phillips, but maybe slightly more stability?
Adams still fell out of favor with Leipzig last year, however, and the recent history of players moving from Germany to England is mostly discouraging. Leeds’ style, or what we think it will be now that Marsch can set it as he wants, will be Red Bull-esque, full of pressing and countering and hair-on-fire running, which Leipzig had gotten away from and why Marsch didn’t work out there. Adams and Aaronson should fit in perfectly.
How much rope they’ll be given though… the strong inclination will be to say “not a lot.” Both will win themselves some buffer zone early simply because they both work so hard, and fans rarely get on the back of any player immediately who shows maximum effort. But Leeds was short of goals toward the end of last season, and if Aaronson doesn’t find the net early he’s going to get labeled a “try-hard.” Aaronson isn’t being asked to be their top scorer or anything like it, but he does need to chip in and he does need to create some looks too. It’s a big step up from the Austrian league to the Premier League.
Adams faces no less of a test, as even if he plays well, Leeds’ defense could still be shaky. They certainly need a player like Adams to support and shield them, but this is a team that simply bled goals against last season and one defensive midfielder, no matter how good, is going to solve that.
The schedule should help. Leeds only sees one of the big boys, Chelsea, in its first seven games. They’ll also see Everton and Nottingham Forest in those first seven, and Wolves and Southampton who shouldn’t really wow anyone. Even a couple of wins should help everyone breathe a bit. In fact, Leeds’s tough stretch isn’t really until the end of October, when they face Liverpool, Spurs, and Man City in the span of four games.
But again, their passports will have all three under a probably unfair microscope. Adams can get drawn out of position at times, especially if he gets a little brave when his team has the ball. Aaronson has to go from producing in Austria to the biggest league in the world. Should they succeed, it’s a huge boon for the USMNT. But if it isn’t working, how quickly will Marsch be to pull the trigger on them? And if he doesn’t, how many more knives will be out for him? There’s a runway here, but all three have to hit it.