Three fingers can probably add up the occasions Leeds United looked like a competent, progressive project with a future under Jesse Marsch. That’s three matches from the 37 Marsch took charge of across 343 days.
That sums up why Andrea Radrizzani and the board had to act. If you’re a Leeds boss at the helm of a listing ship in February, you have to live in fear of your phone ringing.
Thomas Christiansen and Marcelo Bielsa each took bullets from the Elland Road hierarchy in February when it became clear pre-season expectations were in danger of getting away from them. Radrizzani, Victor Orta and Angus Kinnear evidently have a cut-off point where enough is considered enough.
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Perhaps that point should have been drawn in the sand far earlier than now. Even as Leeds went into last summer on that wave of disbelieving euphoria from Brentford, there remained grave questions about whether we had seen enough progress from Marsch in his opening dozen games.
The American was given the benefit of the doubt because of when he was appointed, how little time he had to turn the team’s fate around and how many players he was missing through injury. It had been very hard to watch for so many of those 12 matches down the run-in, but we told ourselves he deserved to get his own team in place, with suitable players and a full pre-season under their belts.
If there was no sign of discernible progress from Bielsa’s reign by September or October then a tough decision may need to be made. We reached that point in late October, as predicted.
Consecutive losses to Leicester City and Fulham felt like the straws which should have broken the camel’s back. We were braced to unleash our ‘manager sacked’ content plans that night after the Cottagers’ win, but the call never came.
Winless in eight, bereft of confidence or any sign of things improving, we were anticipating an Anfield repeat of Bielsa’s last away game as Leeds boss. Crysencio Summerville’s last-gasp winner and Illan Meslier’s goalkeeping heroics saved Marsch’s job that night.
The chaotic fightback, more chaos theory later, against Bournemouth only added gloss as the board came to terms with giving the American one final roll of the dice through the World Cup break. It was the natural pause in the campaign many expected Leeds to use as their reset for a new man to take the reins and instil their philosophy.
Not only was Marsch given the World Cup break and flown out with the squad to Spain for a week, but they doubled down on their backing. Orta, so assertive in his belief Marsch was the right man to follow Bielsa, pushed to give the American everything he could to succeed.
In the summer, former colleagues Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams and Rasmus Kristensen were reunited with Marsch. Then last month, Max Wober linked up with Marsch again too, before compatriot Weston McKennie and the biggest investment the club has ever made, in Georginio Rutter.
Even Chris Armas, arguably the closest man to Marsch in football, was recruited as late into his friend’s tenure as 12 days ago. Orta’s unlikely to have any regrets about giving Marsch the tools he needed for the job, but he may well have doubts about the original appointment decision.
Has this ever looked like the right fit? Watford away last season, Wolverhampton Wanderers on the opening day and then Chelsea in August. Those are the aforementioned three occasions it felt like Marsch may be onto something.
Watford, a husk of a Premier League side by the time Leeds visited in April, offered up the three points which, at the time, felt like the batch to keep United out of trouble. It had been a third win in four games and there was a window of optimism for the summer ahead with top-flight status supposedly secured.
Wolves and Chelsea, who would sack their embattled bosses not long after their Leeds losses, were the most confident, assured, emphatic wins of Marsch’s tenure. The latter remains a high water mark for Elland Road’s recent history, let alone the American’s zenith.
As time went on it became a bigger and bigger stick to beat Marsch with. It began to look like an oasis in a desert of dire, directionless football. There were of course more than just three wins under Marsch, but the others were so chaotic and freakish they could do nothing for his legitimacy as a top-flight head coach.
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Last season at Molineux, Joe Gelhardt day against Norwich City, Gelhardt day part two against Brighton & Hove Albion, final-day survival at Brentford and then the Bournemouth comeback in November. None of those results were won with a methodical, effective tactical system which pulled the opposition apart.
Villa Park and Arsenal’s Elland Road visit were good performances, but what sway does that hold when, once again, they would fall to defeat on each occasion? Much of the patience with Marsch, inside and outside the dressing room, is derived from his character, moral compass and qualities as a human being, if not as a football tactician.
He was a pleasure to deal with in press conferences. Marsch was engaging, made eye contact and showed no ego at any point. Even away from the professional sphere, he was interested in your background as a person.
In Spain, at dinner with the travelling media, he would ask about your family and how you came to be reporting on Leeds United. It’s easy to understand why the dressing room was so angry about a false report which suggested mutiny in the ranks, when Marsch was evidently so good to them as people.
When American radio stations asked you what the perception of Marsch was like inside the Leeds bubble, you could only praise his personality and talk up how much you wanted him to get it right. It’s just never been there on a consistent basis.
Yes, Leeds are left with a squad in Marsch’s image, but there are a lot of very good footballers in that group who can adapt to new systems. The cold, hard investment has been there across two windows and this is a squad which should be higher than 17th in the league table.
Marsch was never appointed because of the American link with 49ers Enterprises, so the incoming owners will not feel personally slighted by this failed experiment. They will, however, have a sharp eye on who comes next as, most likely, the first head coach of their tenure at the top of the club.
Another centre-back, or perhaps a more natural left-back, seems to be all this squad realistically needs in the summer. Every other department looks well catered for, barring unforeseen exits, contract issues or relegation
Add the right head coach to an ambitious and hungry set of new owners and, with this squad, the potential remains immense. Just as it was 12 months ago, however, survival is the first priority for the next head coach picking up the pieces.
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