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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Belt

SPORT: Jesse Marsch at Leeds United: The good, the bad, the ugly and more

Here we go again. For the second time in two seasons, the axe has fallen on the head coach at Leeds United in February.


If being on the precipice of the relegation zone entering the business end of the season was enough for the board to act against Marcelo Bielsa - a man who even in his toughest moments at Elland Road retained the popular support of the fanbase - then it makes sense that Jesse Marsch - with considerably less goodwill emanating from the stands - would experience the same fate.


So, how to view the American's near-12 months in the job?


It's inarguable that Marsch achieved the short-term objective of keeping the Whites in the Premier League last season. Convincing or not, lucky or not, somehow he squeezed enough out of a burnt-out group to live to fight another day.


Rewarded with backing on transfers in the summer and a full pre-season to create a Leeds United in his image, the early signs were promising with seven points from the first three games, the latter of which was a convincing rout of Chelsea.


The glow of Marsch's Leeds in the summer sun, however, slowly faded with just two further victories secured since the giddiness of that Chelsea game; promising performances have failed to yield sufficient points on the board to convince the club and the fans that things would turn around.


From a personal perspective, I was won round by Marsch the person - a man of integrity who gave his all for the club - but less so by Marsch the tactician. He had broad shoulders taking on the role after the emotional departure of a club legend in Bielsa and clearly has good leadership qualities to be able to have galvanised the squad to stay up last season.


Given a chance to show us what he could do this season, Leeds's dominance of games has mainly come in spells where it hasn't translated into goals, whilst in the fewer spells United have been second best, we've been punished. A leaky defence towards the end of Bielsa's reign was seen as a key action area for Marsch to address and, whilst thrashings this season have been few and far between, clean sheets have been notably rare.


I can see the succession plan from Bielsa to Marsch: high intensity, excellent fitness levels and full-blooded commitment, but on the ball, it's a far cry from Bielsa's possession-based gameplan and careless protection of the ball saw Leeds come unstuck far too many times under Marsch. The one game I saw live at Elland Road under Marsch's stewardship was a rare victory at home to Wolves, but it could have easily gone the other way.


That game and others I've watched with Marsch in charge have felt like Leeds are walking a tightrope, with control of a football match virtually non-existent from his time leading the club. Here's a review of the good, the bad, the ugly, the absurd(!) and the positive defeats from Marsch's spell in charge...


The good


Leeds 3-0 Chelsea - the pinnacle of Marsch's tenure. With his stock high after keeping Leeds up, the club begin the season on fire, with a convincing win over Chelsea making fans wonder whether the board were geniuses after all.


Watford 0-3 Leeds - the only other Leeds game, other than the Chelsea game, which saw a convincing win, one caveat being that the hosts were pretty dreadful.


Liverpool 1-2 Leeds - not one I or any other Leeds fan saw coming, Rodrigo accepting a gift of a goal before Crysencio Summerville announced himself to the Premier League with a late winner. A win, in hindsight, which won Marsch a stay of execution.


Accrington Stanley 1-3 Leeds - yes, a strange one to include but the type of fixture which historically trips up even the best of Leeds coaches. Refreshing to see the competition taken seriously and the new manager can target reaching the quarter-finals from this platform.


The bad


Leeds 0-4 Man City - getting towards the end of last season, there was no worse fixture, yet Leeds barely laid a glove on City in a routine win which didn't scream 'fighting for our lives'.


Palace 2-1 Leeds - a game which probably sums up Marsch's tenure, Leeds began brightly dominating Palace and going 1-0 up, but the hosts hit back fairly quickly and the rest of the game was easily managed by Patrick Vieira's men. The contrast in controlling the first 30 minutes then next to nothing of note for the next hour was stark.


Villa 2-1 Leeds - a totally dominant first half performance but somehow Leeds went into the dressing room 1-0 down. A second goal against the run of play in the second half proved too big a lead to overturn despite a late goal from Bamford and the familiar tale of 'good performance, bad result' reared its head again.


The ugly


Leeds 0-3 Villa - Marsch's first home game and a winnable fixture against struggling Aston Villa. An encouraging narrow defeat in the American's first game at Leicester gave cause for cautious optimism but that all vanished as Villa cruised to victory at a toxic Elland Road, the fans still processing the sudden departure of Bielsa and struggling to see an immediate uplift in fortunes.


Leeds 0-3 Chelsea - Marsch wanted Leeds fired up for the visit of Chelsea, but Dan James took that too much to heart, lunging into a tackle early on and deservedly seeing red. A tame performance followed, convincing all that the Championship beckoned.


Brentford 5-2 Leeds - the first big defeat this season. Much of the ire focused on Diego Llorente following a series of individual mistakes, but this spelled trouble for Marsch as an amazing August started to fade from memory.


Leicester 2-0 Leeds - prior to the game, Leicester were in deep trouble and barely able to buy a win. What followed was a fairly straightforward win for the Foxes which dragged Leeds closer to the relegation zone. It had all the hallmarks of a team destined for relegation and seemed the point from which Marsch would surely not recover from. Liverpool away however, kept the trapdoor at bay.


Forest 1-0 Leeds - good performance or not, this simply was a game Leeds could not lose. Lose they did and, like Leicester, the fans turned on Marsch but, this time, the outcome was terminal for the coach.


The absurd


This covers wins we somehow mustered with the jury out on individual efforts or Marsch's guidance being key in gaining them.


Leeds 2-1 Norwich - Leeds dominate the game, yet still conspire to concede a 91st-minute equaliser against the worst team in the league. Cue the ball being pumped up top, Joe Gelhardt leaping like a salmon to flick the ball on to Raphinha who terrorised the defence and passed back to Gelhardt to score a dramatic 94th-minute winner, sparking pandemonium in the stands!


Wolves 2-3 Leeds - 2-0 down at Molineux and nothing much doing. The descent to the Championship seemingly unstoppable. A rash moment from Raul Jimenez on Illan Meslier brings red for the Mexican and with half an hour to go, Jack Harrison and Rodrigo score to turn the game around. The 91st minute then brings an iconic moment, Luke Ayling showing composure to bring the ball down, lash the ball into the net and then produce a delirious, yet woeful, forward roll in celebrating in front of the travelling fans!


Brentford 1-2 Leeds - admit it, you thought relegation was a formality in this game. Newcastle had nothing to play for against Burnley, who were above Leeds going into the final game of the season, and Leeds had a dreadful record against the Bees. A strange line-up, thrusting youngsters Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood into the limelight, further signalled this formality, but a Raphinha penalty gives hope. A Brentford goal against the run of play bursts that bubble but Canos's celebration earns him a second yellow card and, with the point seemingly gained appearing to be enough, Harrison lashes in from the edge of the box to bring a party atmosphere to the away corner of Brentford's new stadium and jubilation from watching Leeds fans across the globe!


Leeds 4-3 Bournemouth - the last of the absurdities on Marsch's watch, Bournemouth storm into a 3-1 lead, but star performances from Greenwood, Willy Gnonto and Crysencio Summerville turn the game on its head to back up the win at Anfield in dramatic fashion.


The positive defeats. Those games which suggested Leeds were turning a corner but in reality, just showed that we couldn't turn positive performances into points


Arsenal 2-1 Leeds - with Leeds in a rut and games running out, two early Arsenal goals suggest no salvation will come in North London. A 27th-minute red card for Ayling doesn't help matters, but when Llorente heads home with a quarter of the game to play, Leeds threaten an unlikely comeback.


Leeds 0-1 Arsenal - Arsenal again, but this time the Gunners sit atop the Premier League table and will be even tougher opposition than previous meetings since Leeds's return to the top tier. A poor concession is followed up by a dominant performance from the Whites with Patrick Bamford left to rue his penalty miss.


Spurs 4-3 Leeds - with the Leeds wins at Liverpool and over Bournemouth fresh in the memory, this game at Spurs represents a free hit, the Qatar World Cup soon to see the Premier League close for business until the Christmas break. A back and forth game sees Leeds 3-2 up at one point but, sadly, a famous win makes way for a 'what if?' moment and certainly one which could have made a huge difference to Marsch's future of the club.


Player development


Results and performances are one thing but player development also offers an insight into the added value, or not, of coaches. To Marsch's credit, there were a few wins on this front. Until very recently Leeds's record buy, Rodrigo looked out of sorts under Bielsa, but under Marsch, the Spanish striker found a new lease of life, bolstered by the leadership role given to be the spokesperson for the significant Spanish presence in the squad. The striker looked more like a player deserving of such an outlay and seemed to benefit from the American's presence. Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville were two others to obviously benefit from Marsch's time at the club, the former rising to greater prominence than peer, Gelhardt, with the latter promoted into the first team and revelling in this opportunity.


The worst of Marsch player development-wise was the spell with Raphinha at the club, with the brilliant Brazilian failing to shine in a narrow team and even relegated to a role at right wing-back at points. Kalvin Phillips similarly had less of an influence in Marsch's teams at the end of last season, perhaps showing an inability to have an influence on top-level players. While the jury has perhaps always been out on Llorente, he was a big player under Bielsa. This, however, changed dramatically under Marsch with his form nosediving suddenly and being dropped from the team.


Communication


Bielsa could talk quite cryptically but the integrity in his words made his press conferences worth tuning into. He won over supporters with his fair views on football and more, and his stubbornness in never criticising his players was laudable.


In Marsch's case, it was more business-speak and he had a tendency to put his foot in it with certain comments. The first time he provoked ire was when he suggested his new squad was exhausted when he took over. Quoted so soon after taking over, with wounds still raw over Bielsa's departure, the criticism rankled.


In the week leading up to the final game of the season at Brentford, where it appeared relegation would be confirmed, Marsch revealed he had shared quotes from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa with his squad in a bid to inspire them to victory. Nothing wrong with doing this, but sharing it with the press opened him up to ridicule and, had Leeds been relegated, you can be sure this would have been thrown back in his face, and perhaps would have become the defining image of the drop from the first tier.


More recently, Marsch opened himself up to ridicule again by announcing he had joined LinkedIn. Inevitably, jokes about him needing to find work soon sprung up and the self-fulfilling prophecy was confirmed a month later with his sacking.


Most alarming to me was reading a blog reporting from a business conference Marsch spoke at, while still in post, where he stated he was a believer in numerology - with his specific belief relating to which order in the family you are born in if you have siblings.


Away from the gaffes, I actually think he spoke well more often than not. Walking into a very difficult situation last season, he, for the most part, was respectful of the work Bielsa had done and acknowledged how it would take a while to win over the crowd. He came across as passionate, honest and hard-working. All good qualities but not enough to come anywhere near his predecessor in winning hearts and minds in Leeds.


Conclusion


It wasn't all bad under the American and at times it felt we weren't far off hitting our stride, but the fact is it didn't happen and in the results-driven world of elite football, such a decision was inevitable. I wish Marsch all the best and hope he can find a continued path in coaching but, like many who have gone before, Leeds United proved too big a job for him.




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