This weekend was a new beginning for Leeds United. Their legendary manager with knees of steel, Marcelo Bielsa, has ridden off into the sunset and been replaced by American Jesse Marsch on the touchline. Bielsa may be gone from Elland Road but what he has done will not soon be forgotten as despite this season’s struggles the legendary manager remains a hero at Leeds for returning the club to the Premier League. Things will be both different and similar under Marsch’s watchful eye. He opened his time at Leeds with a 1-0 loss to Leicester, but the team put in a strong performance, and there were already hints of what Marsch will try and instill with his new side.
Marsch’s plans for Leeds United
The team has primarily been hampered by their defense, a group that’s allowed 60 goals on the season, five more than the second loosest side, Norwich City. Leeds are on pace to match Derby County’s record for goals conceded in a 38-game Premier League season which is 89 in the 2007-08 season. The defensive woes are due to a mix of breakdowns in Bielsa’s man-marking system and injuries to Diego Llorente, Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford. and Liam Cooper. Man marking is only as good as the players available so without players who could keep up, the cracks in Bielsa’s press began to show.
Marsch taking over Leeds United won’t magically make the team healthier, but according to his first press conference, he will get some boosts sooner than later. Patrick Bamford is back in training and while Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper aren’t available yet, they are making good progress to return to the squad sooner than later. Those three alone can provide the quality that Leeds needs to stay in the Premier League but Marsch’s job is to make sure that the team is already heading in the right direction as his best players get back on the field.
Having learned a thing or two during his time with RB Salzburg and Leipzig, Marsch comes into this job with more experience as well. Leipzig seemed like a perfect job but he struggled to implement his philosophy in Germany. When Marsch was let go, Leipzig were underperforming expectations, buried in midtable but it’s hard to say that all of the underperforming was because of him, especially seeing how his Salzburg sides flourished. Even after Marsch was let go at Leipzig, the club’s front office made it a point to express their belief in Marsch’s ability and explained the move as motivated by the mismatch between the coach’s style and the squad.
What to expect under new management?
Marsch prefers a 4-4-2 formation with two defensive midfielders in the middle of the park. He relies on winning the ball high up the pitch with quick transitions which is a philosophy which isn’t too far off of the Bielsa method. A big difference though is how they choose to defend. Marsch said that he has already shifted away from man-marking this week, while also trying to make sure that his team isn’t punished on the break. Against Leicester, gone was the man-marking system that has led to the team being vulnerable on the break and in its place was a more conservative build up that saw the front four break while the back six were more static in their roles. That meant that goalkeeper Illian Meslier wasn’t hung out to dry constantly with no center backs there to protect him. Meslier has clearly struggled this season, conceding 60 goals when the expected goals value of the shots on target he’s faced is only 46.77, but part of that is clearly down to the defensive lapses in front of him. He conceded once on Saturday but only faced seven shots with a total expected goal value of 0.33, both totals were Leed’s second fewest in a match this season.
Speaking about Bielsa’s time at Leeds Marsch said, “I didn’t want to see Marcelo go out like this. I wanted to see him continue his legacy and keep the team up. I wanted to make that argument with [Leeds sporting director] Victor [Orta] when he called me. But I could see the team was suffering.”
It’s now up to Marsch to end that suffering. The first question is how flexible Marsch will be with formations. Early in his career during his time with CF Montreal, he played more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 but the Red Bull systems ask for a 4-4-2. At Leicester the team played in what seemed to be a 4-2-2-2.
As Marsch settles in, the defensive midfield role will be key, just as it was under Bielsa. But it will be differen.t Looking back to how Marsch used American Tyler Adams is a good way to anticipate how he might deploy Leeds defensive midfielder Phillips, once the England international returns to the field. Just as it was under Bielsa, the defensive midfielder’s responsibility is to identify attacks, win the ball, and turn defense into offense. But while under Bielsa the midfielder was tasked with contesting absolutely everything and then aggressively taking on the transition responsibility of spraying passes up the field, Marsch wants his midfielders to pick his spots. It’s notable that Leeds’ strong defensive performance at Leicester came while allowing their opponents to complete 79.9% of their passes, which is actually the seventh best passing percentage an opponent has had all season.
Then, those times the team does win the ball back, rather than relentlessly attack immediately, an approach which can lead to the team being quickly put back under pressure, Marsch wants lateral passes first so willing runners like Stuart Dallas will be key for ball progression un Marsch.
Marsch explained this philosophy below.
After winning the ball, it’s off to the races for a Bielsa side which won’t be the case under Marsch. Keep it tight and be hard to break down will be the motto for Leeds United. Given all that, it’s not surprising that fullbacks played a major role in the buildup with Junior Firpo and Stuart Dallas having 71 and 90 touches, both good for top three on the team. It was a strong attacking performance that led to an xG of 1.95. Leeds also complete the fifth highest percentage of passes in the final third of any match this season at 79.7 percent, again suggesting a slightly less gung-ho style than Bielsa instlled.
Mike Grella who played for Leeds United and was also coached by Marsch spoke about the appointment saying, “They are getting a top quality manager. It’s very hard to replace the manager that they had of course but what they are getting is the next best thing and the modern version of it in a lot of ways. He is very clever, he is very good at getting everyone on the same page and for me personally, he brought the best out of me and the best out of the group. One of his main things is that you don’t play with fear and he puts all of us on the same page. He’s one of the top managers that I’ve had in my career.”
Grella calling Marsch a modern version of Bielsa is particularly notable. One concern is that that “modern version” takes time to instill, which is part of why Marsch did struggle to transition things from Julian Naglesmann at Leipzig and he lost starters in Leipzig both fitness-wise and tactically, Leeds are a better fit to take over given they’ve already invested in a high energy style but Marsch will still need to tone things down and tweak what they already do initially, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel on his first day.
And with only four days of training under his belt, Marsch’s methodology showed in his first match, the stats are pretty clear about the differences in the way the team played, but so did the team’s lack of finishers. They fired off 19 shots against the Foxes but only four found the target which is a number that the recovering striker Patrick Bamford will improve in the coming weeks. While he made the bench during the match, he was unable to get into the game likely due to a lack of fitness. He could play more minutes against Aston Villa on Thursday, immediately improving their prospects.
And then there was post-match. Despite the loss Marsch and the team huddled on the pitch and after the game. And Marsch heavily praised his team’s performance, “I’m really proud and pleased of our group at how far in four or five days we’ve come, he said. “So there are so many little things that I see in the match, that I know we need to clarify and continue to get better with. But and we will. I don’t like normally be screaming from the bench so much, but, you know, it’s just trying to help the guys, continue to understand what we were trying to achieve tactically.”
With more time and a healthy team, it’s hard not to back Marsch to take the team where they want to go ensuring safety in the Premier League. The plan is there, it just needs execution for the tweaks to work.