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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Jesse Marsch could be the perfect successor to Bielsa at Leeds United

Jesse Marsch hired at Leeds United
Jesse Marsch has a tough job ahead as he tries to evolve Leeds United – and save them from the drop. Filip Singer/EPA.

Leeds United’s fans never wanted to see the day Marcelo Bielsa left the club. Just hours after the legendary Argentine was dismissed from his position at Elland Road, they lined up outside his house to bid farewell. Some asked for a picture or an autograph. Others just wanted a hug from the man who revived Leeds as a club and a city.

In the end, there was a begrudging acceptance on behalf of the fanbase and the club itself that Bielsa had to go. His Leeds United team had conceded more goals (60) than any other Premier League side this season and were heading for relegation. A change was needed and Jesse Marsch has now been hired as the man to turn the Whites around.

Marsch certainly doesn’t have the legendary standing in the game that Bielsa has, but the American still arrives at Elland Road as a highly-rated coach. Marsch might not have lasted long at RB Leipzig, but the success he enjoyed at Red Bull Salzburg, where he won successive league and cup doubles, highlighted his ability.

The appointment of Marsch proves Leeds United’s commitment to Bielsa’s principles. In their current position, just two points off the relegation zone in the Premier League table, many clubs would have given a call to someone like Sam Allardyce or someone known for their footballing firefighting in times of trouble.

Instead, Leeds United looked for a manager who would use the foundation put in place by Bielsa and build on top of it. This is why Marsch was quickly identified as the ideal candidate to take over, with the American known for his ball-orientated, aggressive style of play. Continuation of that general tactical strategy means Leeds will still be an entertaining team to watch.

The hope, though, is that they will be stronger in defence. Bielsa’s man-marking approach left Leeds vulnerable to opponents with greater individual quality – see how Manchester United earned so many big results over their rivals with Bielsa at the helm. Marsch, on the other hand, favours a zonal marking system, which relies more on organization and communication but can be incredibly effective, barring the correct implementation.

Of course, this switch in defensive approach brings its own risks. With just 12 games remaining of the 2021/22 Premier League season, will Marsch have the time to implement his own ideas while keeping Leeds away from relegation danger? Ideally, the American would have a pre-season period to get across his methods. He doesn’t have that luxury.

He does, however, have a talented group of players who should be able to adapt under a new manager. Bielsa might have overachieved in terms of the individual talent at Elland Road, but Leeds United are an intelligent team. Marsch’s former mentor Ralf Rangnick has struggled to reshape a generally vacuous group at Manchester United. Marsch himself should avoid a similar fate.

What’s more, Patrick Bamford and Kalvin Phillips are expected to return from injury in the coming weeks. Both players were key figures for Leeds United when they were at their best under Bielsa. The Whites have missed them badly as they have tumbled down the Premier League table and so their availability will boost Marsch’s chances of instant success.

Four days is all Marsch will have had with his new players before his first match as Leeds United manager away to Leicester City. His first home game in charge comes just five days later. Then comes a relegation six-pointer against Norwich City. By the end of this three-game stretch, fans and pundits will have already assessed Marsch’s suitability for the job.

That might seem harsh, but this is the situation Marsch entered. Leeds United are an ambitious club. They ultimately want to emulate the likes of Leicester City and Wolves, who have punched well above their weight in recent times, but they are counting on Marsch to keep them in the top flight first.

Bielsa-ball will live on in some form at Elland Road, but Marsch will build something that he can call his own. Leeds United will still make good use of vertical movement, but Marsch will hope to instill a greater sense of defensive unity in his players – the American likes his teams to cover the pitch using a ‘net.’ Cohesion is key to this strategy.

One of Bielsa’s biggest strengths as a leader at Leeds United was the way he quickly won hearts and minds, and Marsch will have to do the same. The Elland Road club are attempting to split the difference between preserving what got them this far in the first place and trying something new to keep them there. Marsch might be the man to deliver this.

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