As the curtains closed on Marcelo Bielsa’s memorable time at Leeds United, attention turned to the man who would have what in some ways is the impossible job.
Replacing Bielsa was not simply a case of bringing in someone who’s tactics may bring about an upturn in Leeds’ form. The emotional bond between Bielsa and Leeds is one that is rarely seen and one that may never be seen again. As such, whoever was to replace Bielsa, by no fault of there own, would feel a bit underwhelming.
However, in appointing Jesse Marsch, it needn’t be all doom and gloom for Leeds fans.
Whilst a step into the unknown, Marsch has never before managed in the Premier League, brings with it a certain amount of apprehension, Marsch has a novelty about him which may be just what is needed to reignite Leeds’ season.
Drafting in a firefighter like Sam Allardyce to save the club from relegation may have been the safe option but it would have felt quite underwhelming particularly given what it followed. If indeed this would have worked, it would almost certainly have meant another change in the summer.
In opting for somebody like Marsch, Andre Radrizzani and the board would have had a view to the future beyond just the remainder of this season. If he does keep them up, Marsch will be wishing to build something bigger. For settling upon somebody with very little experience in the 48 year old Marsch, the ownership have taken a gamble and that alone should be applauded to a degree.
One of the most interesting aspects of Marsch’s appointment is that, as per Phil Hay of The Athletic identified, the board were tracking him as Bielsa’s successor even before the slump suffered this season. Given Bielsa would always work on a year by year basis, there was always the possibility that he could call it quits at any point so it was important that Leeds had a back up option in the event that this occurred.
Marsch adopts a high pressing, high intensity style not at all dissimilar to that which brought Bielsa so much success during his time with the Yorkshire club. Although the former US international’s strategy of zonal marking differs to Bielsa’s man to man approach, their philosophies have many similarities so it shouldn’t be too difficult for the players to transition from one manager to the other.
The demands that Bielsa so famously placed upon his players will mean that they are by in large extremely fit so again, they shouldn’t need too much in the way of of endurance training to meet Marsch’s requirements in this regard.
During his time at RB Salzburg in Austria, his side conceded on average just over one goal a game. Admittedly, Salzburg dominate the Austrian league so this statistic should be taken with a pinch of salt but it is nevertheless promising considering Leeds’ defensive shortcomings this season.
Arguably the thing contributing most to Leeds fans’ trepidation is the fact that Marsch was sacked only four months into his tenure at one of the other Red Bull clubs, Leipzig. However, it should be noted that there were a number of mitigating factors for this.
Firstly, Leipzig lost three players crucial to their success under their former manager. Deyot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer (Bayern Munich) along with Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool) all left the club in the summer before Marsch took over. Losing three players so integral to the team’s success prior to Marsch’s appointment was bound to have an adverse effect.
Any manager coming in would have had an incredibly challenging task on their hands in trying to offset the gaping hole that the loss of these players had left.
Additionally, Marsch’s counterattacking, transitional style of play was in many ways at odds with the ideals of the previous Leipzig manager, Julian Nagelsmann. During his four years there, Nagelsmann had implemented a far more flexible style in which his team built up play from the back. The fact that Marsch’s tactics were so far removed from this meant that the players struggled to adapt to this drastic change.
Eventually, Marsch was in no man’s land as he tried to adopt tactics more similar to what the players had been accustomed to in the years preceding his arrivals whilst still trying to stick to some of his own methods which ended up having more of a negative effect than a positive one. As briefly mentioned earlier though, the fact that Bielsa deployed a similar style to that which Marsch has done throughout his managerial career up until this point should mean that the transition is far more smooth than it was for him at Leipzig.
Rafael Honigstein, The Athletic’s Bundesliga correspondent, argued that under different circumstances, he may well have succeeded. Writing about Marsch’s time at the club, he said “Marsch was the right man for the wrong time at Leipzig, about five years too late in light of the side’s tactical arc or maybe a couple of years too early as far as his own experience as a head coach.”
The above all taken into consideration, Leeds fans have reason to be quietly optimistic about what the post Bielsa era has to hold.