What went wrong for Jesse Marsch at Leeds and what’s next
Perhaps Jesse Marsch was showing some foresight when he joined LinkedIn last month. The need to advertise his services feels greater now he is available. A manager who signed up for an employment website is unemployed.
He was ushered to the exit by the supporters who had long seemed dubious about him and the board who had backed him to the hilt. The fans had called for him to go in Sunday’s defeat to Nottingham Forest. A day later, the powerbrokers concurred. “Everyone is aligned,” Marsch had said at the City Ground. Maybe everyone else was; just not him.
He took over a team in 16th, left one in 17th and won just eight of 32 league games. He nevertheless deserves credit for keeping Leeds up last season, for inheriting a side whose man-marking game was falling apart, conjuring 15 points from 12 matches and engineering enough spirit to get a series of telling last-minute goals.
Part of his problem was that he was not Marcelo Bielsa, lacking his beloved predecessor’s mystique, without the constituency of support the iconoclastic Argentinian had. Marsch revealed far more of himself, perhaps in a bid to develop the same bond and, if he was mocked for citing inspirational quotes from Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and John F Kennedy, it may have reflected the way some methods and elements of the footballing lexicon do not translate across the Atlantic.
But part of the issue was the more prosaic reality that he did not win enough games. After six victories in his first 15 league games came just two in the last 17. Marsch delivered two memorable triumphs over Champions League winners, the August evisceration of Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea and October’s late drama to overcome Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool. He also struggled to beat anyone else. Leeds could score highly in various statistics, but not the one that mattered most.
“I have to find a way to turn good performances more into winning,” he said after his valedictory defeat at Forest. January’s display at Aston Villa was, Marsch said, “the most complete performance” of his reign. Leeds lost.
If some of his rhetoric showed a positivity that jarred with Yorkshire sensibilities, some of it showed the contradictions of Marsch’s Leeds. There seemed a host of encouraging elements: just not the fact losses outnumbered wins and that Leeds had not taken three points in a game since November. Rodrigo, the club-record buy who was something of a misfit under Bielsa, has been prolific, with only four players outscoring him in the division this season. The youngsters Crysencio Summerville and Wilfried Gnonto have been terrific and their progress has accelerated quicker than most expected. Leeds lost their two best players last summer, in Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, and the majority of their signings have suggested a rebuilding job is being based around fine components. Brenden Aaronson has tailed off after a wonderful start but Tyler Adams is excellent, Luis Sinisterra undeniably talented and Gnonto a revelation.
And yet the inconvenient detail remains that only Leeds and Bournemouth are winless since the World Cup. Marsch’s football could be chaotic, with his time at Red Bull clubs reflected in high-intensity, high-speed encounters, but there were times when more subtlety was required and others when more nous was needed. If there is a difficulty in replacing a manager whose tactics are as different as Bielsa’s and if the high standards in the lower half of the division offer an explanation, a winning formula eluded Marsch.
Leeds turned on him swiftly: it was only a couple of weeks ago that his fellow American Chris Armas was added to his staff as his assistant. But until this week, they had, to use an Americanism, gone all-in on Marsch. He may wonder what would have happened if Leeds had landed summer targets like Cody Gakpo or Charles de Ketelaere but they ended up as big buyers anyway. If the loanee Weston McKennie becomes a permanent addition, his spending will come to around £170m. Five of his signings were either Americans or from Red Bull clubs or both. The last of them, McKennie, only played 33 minutes for his new manager. The club record signing Georginio Rutter only featured for 23 minutes in the Premier League.
To sack Marsch now reeks of panic and poor planning: perhaps, however, the theory is that an all-American midfield of Adams, Aaronson and McKennie has the quality to perform better for another manager. The timing may have less to do with an upcoming double-header against Manchester United, which could have finished Marsch off anyway, than the next two fixtures, against Everton and Southampton and the kind Leeds have to win.
Marsch’s departure may not be mourned by other managers and fourth officials who tired of his touchline antics but it will be intriguing if he is back in a Premier League dugout. It is easy to bracket him with his compatriot Bob Bradley but the division’s first American manager failed at Swansea. Marsch can point to victory in a relegation battle. Maybe a successor will be able to build on the encouraging elements this season by adding more ruthlessness. Marsch’s reign lasted under a year but included enough to make for a lengthy LinkedIn entry. But now the link with Leeds has been severed.