Leeds must heed warning from narrow escape and revitalise Jesse Marsch’s ailing squad

·5 min read
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch celebrates with director of football Victor Orta (Action Images via Reuters)
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch celebrates with director of football Victor Orta (Action Images via Reuters)

The first rule of relegation battles is not to invoke Mahatma Gandhi. The second is not to quote Mother Teresa. Jesse Marsch broke both and got away with it. The more meaningful element is that, while the Leeds manager invited mockery by revealing he draws inspiration from iconic figures, he did the short-term task required. His return of 15 points from 12 games was more than respectable, especially as the American took over a team who had lost their previous four games by an aggregate score of 17-2. Marcelo Bielsa’s legacy was admirable in many respects but he contrived to ruin Leeds’ goal difference so Marsch’s job entailed getting an extra point to compensate. Three at Brentford on Sunday sufficed.

Leeds’ season had seemed laced with tragicomic moments. There was the time they accidentally substituted Luke Ayling, to Marsch’s visible fury. A club accustomed to Joy Division-inspired taunts of “Leeds are falling apart again” from opponents showed a self-destructive streak as first Stuart Dallas, then Ayling, then Dan James contrived to bring his campaign to a premature conclusion with a reckless, and arguably dangerous, lunge. This could have ended in acrimony as well as underachievement.

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As it is, Marsch heard Leeds fans chorusing Bielsa’s name before Pascal Struijk rescued a point against Brighton in the penultimate game. He may be on probation with a fanbase that idolised his predecessor. He would be advised to use the emotion and honesty of his dressing-room speech at Brentford, not the corporate jargon of business school that characterised some of his earlier pronouncements and which jarred with Yorkshire sensibilities.

And yet, whether harnessed by Marsch or a remnant of Bielsa’s regime, his side had a spirit that saved them. Seven points in his brief reign stemmed from injury-time goals: winners by Joe Gelhardt against Norwich, Ayling at Wolves and Jack Harrison on Sunday, plus Struijk’s leveller. If Marsch was being undiplomatic when he said Bielsa “over-trained” his players, their injury record suggests he was right. Yet those formidable fitness levels, when players weren’t breaking down, may have contributed to a spate of late goals.

If Marsch brought end-of-season entertainment, Leeds’ decline from ninth last season to 18th with a game to go felt a tale of two strategists whose plans had gone awry: Bielsa and director of football Victor Orta. The Argentinian had galvanised Leeds in idiosyncratic, endearing fashion, putting them in the unfamiliar position of being liked and admired by outsiders and conjuring exponential improvement from his Championship stalwarts, but the fundamental flaws in his trademark man-marking became glaringly apparent. There is only so long Leeds’ willing runners could track far more talented players: most of their thrashings came when the gulf in ability was greatest.

Jack Harrison (left) and Kalvin Phillips celebrate Leeds’ late winner at Brentford (PA)
Jack Harrison (left) and Kalvin Phillips celebrate Leeds’ late winner at Brentford (PA)

It also meant that any successor would have to change and Marsch should not be criticised for doing so. No one plays like Bielsa for a reason; nothing else would be as iconoclastic or as kamikaze. Instead, Marsch is not the first manager to discover that a 4-2-2-2 formation is difficult to implement; his subsequent strange attempts to make Raphinha a wing-back were misguided.

But both managers were hampered, one by preference, the other by inheritance. Leeds were left short-staffed and short of quality, both aspects exacerbated by the lengthy absences of Patrick Bamford, who made four appearances, none longer than 45 minutes, since September, and Kalvin Phillips. There was no other senior specialist striker; that Rodrigo was signed when he was Spain’s No 9 but rarely played as such by Leeds highlights the oddness and failure of their record buy. There was a hole at the heart of the team after Mateusz Klich’s three years of overachievement ended.

Amid their midfield problems, Leeds can rue missing out on Conor Gallagher, who would have been ideal, and Lewis O’Brien last summer and Brendan Aaronson in January. Yet Bielsa, often the antidote to other managers, could show a lack of interest in making signings; perhaps his martyr complex meant he preferred to work what he had. The one exception was James and an obsession with the Wales winger brought a deal for a player Leeds didn’t need and who, apart from a two-goal salvo against Aston Villa, ran around at high speed without accomplishing much.

If the blame for James can be laid at Bielsa’s door, Orta’s record in the transfer market is decidedly flawed. Raphinha was a superb signing, a player whose probable departure this summer should produce a sizeable profit and one whose early-season excellence ultimately kept Leeds up. But apart from him and converting the loans of Harrison and Illan Meslier into permanent deals, Leeds have too little to show for their outlay in the last two years. Diego Llorente at least excelled in the last three months of the 2020-21 season but has otherwise been part of a porous defence. Robin Koch has rarely looked a player worthy of a place in the Germany squad, sometimes not helped by being a centre-back fielded in midfield. Rodrigo’s goals have been rarities and his assists far fewer still. Junior Firpo has been a disastrous buy; the ultra-versatile Dallas has been a better left-back.

It leaves Leeds looking for both quality and quantity, for a bigger, more durable group of players, for a style of play that involves energy and pressing principles but which nevertheless contains more mainstream ideas and is less risky than Bielsa’s. This is a season that should be a one-off, a warning. Maybe they were lulled into a false sense of security by their brilliant return to the Premier League. Now a club who were exiled to the lower leagues for 16 years should be under fewer illusions that, with more mistakes, they could return there.