Leeds United: Can Jesse Marsch become a ‘modern version’ of Marcelo Bielsa at Elland Road?

This weekend will be a new beginning for Leeds United. Their legendary manager with knees of steel, Marcelo Bielsa, has ridden off into the sunset and been replaced by American Jesse Marsch on the touchline. Bielsa may be gone from Elland Road but what he has done will not soon be fogotten as despite this season’s struggles the legendary manager remains a hero at Leeds for returning the club to the Premier League. Now that he’s gone, things will be both different and similar under Marsch’s watchful eye.

One thing that needs to change is their place in the table — and quickly. Following a dismal month of February, Leeds sit 16th in the Premier League having played 26 matches. Everton and Burnley are behind them but have played 24 and 25 matches respectively. On a points per game basis Leeds average of 0.9 ties them with Everton and Brentford, only a whisker ahead of Burnley at 0.8 and then Watford and Norwich further down. There’s very little margin for error as Marsch takes the wheel.

The team has primarily been hampered by their defense, a group that’s allowed 60 goals on the season, five more than the second loosest side, Norwich City. Leeds are on pace to match Derby County’s record for goals conceded in a 38-game Premier League season which is 89 in the  2007-08 season. The defensive woes are due to a mix of breakdowns in Bielsa’s man-marking system and injuries to Diego Llorente, Kalvin Phillips, Patrick Bamford. and Liam Cooper. Man marking is only as good as the players available so without players who could keep up, the cracks in Bielsa’s press began to show.

Marsch taking over Leeds United won’t magically make the team healthier, but according to his first press conference, he will get some boosts sooner than later. Patrick Bamford is back in training and while Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper aren’t available yet, they are making good progress to return to the squad sooner than later. Those three alone can provide the quality that Leeds needs to stay in the Premier League but Marsch’s job is to make sure that the team is already heading in the right direction as his best players get back on the field.

Having learned a thing or two during his time with RB Salzburg and Leipzig, Marsch comes into this job with more experience as well. Leipzig seemed like a perfect job but he struggled to implement his philosophy in Germany. When Marsch was let go, Leipzig were underperforming expectations, buried in midtable but it’s hard to say that all of the underperforming was because of him, especially seeing how his Salzburg sides flourished. Even after Marsch was let go at Leipzig, the club’s front office made it a point to express their belief in Marsch’s ability and explained the move as motivated by the mismatch between the coach’s style and the squad.

What to expect under new management?

Marsch prefers a 4-4-2 formation with two defensive midfielders in the middle of the park. He relies on winning the ball high up the pitch with quick transitions which is a philosophy which isn’t too far off of the Bielsa method. A big difference though is how they choose to defend. Marsch said that he has already shifted away from man-marking this week, while also trying to make sure that his team isn’t punished on the break. This means that goalkeeper Illian Meslier won’t be hung out to dry constantly with no center backs there to protect him. Meslier has clearly struggled this season, conceding 60 goals when the expected goals value of the shots on target he’s faced is only 46.77, but part of that is clearly down to the defensive lapses in front of him.

Speaking about Bielsa’s time at Leeds Marsch said, “I didn’t want to see Marcelo go out like this. I wanted to see him continue his legacy and keep the team up. I wanted to make that argument with [Leeds sporting director] Victor [Orta] when he called me. But I could see the team was suffering.”

It’s now up to Marsch to end that suffering. The first question is how flexible Marsch will be with formations. Early in his career during his time with CF Montreal, he played more of a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 but the Red Bull systems ask for a 4-4-2. However he lines the team up, the team investing in the kinds of deliberate off-ball movements he wants will be critical to the success of Marsch’s tactics. 

The defensive midfield role will be key, just as it was under Bielsa. And looking back to how Marsch used American Tyler Adams is a good way to anticipate how he might deploy Leeds defensive midfielder Phillips, once the England international returns to the field. Just as it was under Bielsa, the defensive midfielder’s responsibility is to identify attacks, win the ball, and turn defense into offense. But while under Bielsa the midfielder’s main transition responsibility was spraying forward passes forward, which could lead to the team being put back under pressure, lateral passes to willing runners like Stuart Dallas will be key for ball progression un Marsch. 

A good example of this is below:

After winning the ball, it’s off to the races for a Bielsa side which won’t be the case under Marsch. Keep it tight and be hard to break down will be the motto for Leeds United. In their first match, facing a Leicester side that struggles under pressure will be a good first test for Leeds as they’ve also struggled on the season.

Mike Grella who played for Leeds United and was also coached by Marsch spoke about the appointment saying, “They are getting a top quality manager. It’s very hard to replace the manager that they had of course but what they are getting is the next best thing and the modern version of it in a lot of ways. He is very clever, he is very good at getting everyone on the same page and for me personally, he brought the best out of me and the best out of the group. One of his main things is that you don’t play with fear and he puts all of us on the same page. He’s one of the top managers that I’ve had in my career.”

Grella calling Marsch a modern version of Bielsa is particularly notable. One concern is that that “modern version” takes time to instill, which is part of why Marsch did struggle to transition things from Julian Naglesmann at Leipzig and he lost starters in Leipzig both fitness-wise and tactically, Leeds are a better fit to take over given they’ve already invested in a high energy style but Marsch will still need to tone things down and tweak what they already do initially, instead of trying to reinvent the wheel on his first day.

The team will need points quickly to get breathing room between them and the relegation zone but there’s a path to success here. Tightening the defensive end will likely be enough to see quick improvement because scoring goals is already what the team is good at. Stop the bleeding there, survive this season and stay in the Premier League and Marsch may find he has a squad he can work with, and eventually prove himself to be a worth successor to the the man who will  always remain a club legend.

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