Leeds United parted ways with Marcelo Bielsa over the past weekend. After a major slump in form that saw the East Yorkshire outfit conceding a record 20 goals in February and falling to four consecutive defeats, Leeds United relieved Marcelo Bielsa of his duties – ending a reign that lasted nearly four years and had its fair share of peaks and troughs. It was only a day and a half before his replacement as the new Leeds United manager was announced – while his Argentine predecessor leaves the club in dire straits, he will be replaced by one of the brightest young minds from the other side of the Panama Canal. The arrival of March will see Jesse Marsch take charge of a club sitting in 16th place, and only two points clear of the relegation zone.
However, the 18th-placed Burnley have two games in hand over Leeds which truly puts their plight into context – despite finishing with the second-highest points tally by any newly promoted team last season, Leeds now find themselves in the heart of a relegation scrap. Desperate to retain their top-flight status, their director of football Victor Orta parted ways with the man who led them back to the Premier League after a hiatus of 16 years.
Orta claimed that Marsch was always the club’s first choice to replace Bielsa as his ideals “align with the philosophy of the club in the long term”, the objective for Marsch in the short term is obvious. With the club in dire straits and seemingly in free fall as we approach the last few months of the season, Marsch’s arrival at Elland Road has seen him immediately be bestowed with the Herculean task of keeping Leeds in the top flight. Marsch becomes only the third American to manage a club in the Premier League after Bob Bradley and David Wagner, but the former RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig head coach’s managerial record suggests that he might be up for the task.
SO WHO IS JESSE MARSCH AND WHAT IS HIS CLAIM TO FAME?
Marsch is a former American international who worked with Bradley as an assistant in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, as the United States of America made the Round of 16. In 2012, Marsch became the inaugural manager of Montreal Impact upon their entry into Major League Soccer (MLS) and followed it up with a three-year spell at New York Red Bulls until 2018. In his first year with the club, Marsch won the Supporters’ Shield and was named the Manager of the Year – he also owns the record of the most wins by any coach in the franchise’s history.
However, it was in 2018 that Jesse Marsch came across the most pivotal moment in his short coaching career so far. The American was appointed as the assistant head coach of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, where he would serve as the deputy of ‘the Godfather of modern German football’ in Ralf Rangnick. The current Man Utd interim head coach with Marsch alongside him helped Leipzig to a third-place finish in the league – and it was in that season where Marsch learnt about the game from a footballing mind that has influenced some of the best managers of our time such as Jürgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.
In 2019, Marsch succeeded Marco Rose as the new head coach for RB Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga and helped the club to a league and cup double in two successive seasons – as Salzburg made two consecutive group stage appearances in the Champions League for the first time in their history. Marsch also created history by becoming the first American to win a Champions League game with a European club, writing a new chapter in the history books and setting a yardstick for success unprecedented to any manager of his nationality before him.
After a widely successful spell in Austria, Marsch returned to the German Bundesliga where he succeeded Julian Nagelsmann as the RB Leipzig head coach in 2021 – but the American barely scaled the heights that he reached in Austria. A third consecutive defeat in December meant that Marsch was unceremoniously sacked only five months into the job, but the American did not stay unemployed for too long. Despite a sour ending to his relationship with the Red Bull set-up, Marsch’s managerial ideas have been shaped by his years of experience working with the network – it is certain that he will bring his philosophy and his own set of footballing ideals to Yorkshire.
HOW DOES MARSCH LIKE HIS TEAMS TO PLAY?
It was while managing the New York Red Bulls that Marsch became acquainted with the Red Bull network, and since then, Marsch’s tactics and philosophy have been greatly influenced by the group’s approach to football. In a 2019 interview, Marsch stated that the clubs belonging to the Red Bull set-up like to play as well as think faster than the opponents, and also pointed at the importance given to tactical instructions – Rangnick’s famous ‘gegenpressing’ module is often combined with playing direct, attacking-minded football as well as defeating opponents in transition.
Marsch’s formation of preference is a 4-4-2, where the two wide midfielders tuck in centrally to provide a narrow attacking band between the opposition lines – shaping up more like a 4-2-2-2. However, Marsch does prioritize principles over the formation – for him, the speed, pressing and verticality that his teams provide are much more important than the overall shape of the team. Marsch is also tactically flexible as he has often been known to resort to a 4-3-1-2 employing a diamond in midfield – but regardless of the shape, his team’s pressing is one of his most important ideals.
Marsch’s counter-pressing system is important to the way his teams play, as he shapes his team up to disrupt his opposition playing out from the back. The American instructs his teams to block passing lines in midfield and likes to force his opponent into passing backwards – where his players try and win the ball back to initiate a quick counterattack. Marsch might be delighted with his new group of players at Leeds, a viciously pressing outfit who have had “murder-ball” drilled into them as a stylistic trait after being trained by Bielsa over the past few years.
A verticality is also an approach that is very important to Marsch, as he often employs his defensive midfielder screening the defence and helping in the deep build-up – but also to draw the opposition forward while his centre backs or full-backs try to find attackers with vertical passes. While his attackers like to attack the box through combination play, the full-backs are given the freedom to run down the flank and feed the attackers on the overlap. Marsch likes to get his defenders to launch direct passes up the field as often as possible, playing a spontaneous brand of football.
HOW WILL LEEDS UNITED SHAPE UP UNDER MARSCH?
Marsch may well want to thank his predecessor in Yorkshire for introducing the ideals of pressing and a direct style of football that Leeds are well-acquainted with already. But despite Leeds being a well-drilled pressing outfit who look to cut down passing lanes for the opposition and catch them on the counter, Leeds’ counter-attacking threat that helped them finish a handsome ninth in the Premier League table last season has been well and truly neutralized this season, as teams have looked to find solutions against the high-intensity system – and often have.
Leeds have also been a victim of circumstance this season, having had major injuries rule out their skipper Liam Cooper as well as other key men such as the likes of Kalvin Phillips and Patrick Bamford – but Marsch will have to do with what he has at the moment. A back four of Pascal Struijk, Diego Llorente, Luke Ayling and Stuart Dallas are likely to line up in his first outing in the dug-out as Leeds manager. In the absence of Phillips, Marsch is likely to line up with Robin Koch and Matthias Klich in the heart of midfield while Adam Forshaw may also prove to be an option.
As for his next block of two, Marsch is likely to deploy Jack Harrison and Raphinha – the latter has been talismanic this season with a league tally of nine goals and two assists – ranking first in the Leeds squad for direct goal involvements (11). Raphinha will be key going forward for Leeds as he has been for them throughout the season, a threat in transition as well as from set-pieces – armed with a brilliant left peg that can be deadly on its day. In the absence of their prime marksman Bamford who has missed major parts of the season through injury problems, Rodrigo is likely to start beside Dan James who has been featured as a striker previously in the season.
WHAT ARE LIKELY TO BE MARSCH’S BIGGEST CONCERNS?
One of Marsch’s priorities, as he looks to improve Leeds, will be to tighten the rear guard. Leeds United have conceded the most goals by any team in the division this season (60) and have let in 20 of them only in February. In fact, Leeds have now conceded more goals than they did in the entirety of last season (59), and with about a third of the season still left, may well end up conceding quite a few more if they do not fix their issues at the back. Leeds will travel down to the East Midlands to face Leicester City in their next outing which will see Marsch take over the reins in the dug-out.
Away form will also be on the list of Marsch’s major concerns as Leeds have the fifth-worst away form in the league this season, having picked up only 10 points from 13 away games – while conceding a league-high 35 goals on their travels. With an out-of-sorts squad and injuries to major players, a more pragmatic approach might suit Marsch in his attempt to retain Leeds’ Premier League status – their next five games should be encouraging for Leeds to get their season back on track, as they will face three teams in the bottom half of the league. Their away game against Leicester will be followed by back-to-back home games against Aston Villa and Norwich preceding a trip to Wolves in March – before they welcome Southampton in early April.
However, it will not be particularly easy to replace a man that grew synonymous with the club in such a short period of time. Bielsa, one of the true romantics of the game, grew to find a club and a city where he was worshipped as a Messianic figure – having earned them promotion to the top flight for the first time in 16 years. ‘El Loco’ might be a polarizing yet influential figure in the game forever, but the faithful Leeds supporters loved the Argentine unconditionally – Marsch can only hope to win them over by surviving the much-dreaded drop back to the Championship.
It has to be noted that Jesse Marsch has faced a similar situation before when he was replacing Marco Rose at Salzburg – where the fans greeted him in his first game with a banner that said: “Nein zu Marsch” (No to Marsch). Marsch eventually got the fans onto his side with his style of football and the success he delivered, although this situation might be a lot tougher considering the infamous passion associated with the Leeds faithful. Regardless, there is nothing that wins over disgruntled fans more than results – and that is what Marsch will be hoping to rack up first and foremost.
Marsch comes from a network which has had a lot of previous success at conjuring managers who go on to do well elsewhere – the likes of Rose, Adolf Hütter, Ralph Hassenhüttl, and Roger Schmidt – and there is no reason why Marsch can not emulate his predecessors. Yet, Marsch will know that he is facing an uphill task in the most demanding and competitive league in the world – and though he does have what it takes to succeed in Yorkshire, the almighty war to avoid the drop might just threaten to be beyond him. His first battle will begin at the King Power Stadium.