In the grand game of stick or twist, Leeds United’s decision to twist has paid dividends. With twelve games remaining in the Premier League season, the Elland Road hierarchy dispensed with beloved manager Marcelo Bielsa. His successor, recently-sacked RB Leipzig head coach Jesse Marsch was tasked with lifting the club out of the relegation zone and into a third season back in the top tier. The American has managed it, just about.
Leeds beat nine-man Brentford 2-1 on the final day, bettering relegation rivals Burnley’s result to survive by the skin of their teeth. The Clarets could only lose 2-1 to Newcastle United who, lest we forget, were extremely involved in this particular struggle before a change of ownership and head coach brought about renewal. Leeds' win at the Community Stadium was Marsch’s fourth from twelve games. Their upturn has been incremental rather than spectacular, but that will not matter a jot to supporters.
It has been a season to forget. The slow decline of Bielsa’s ideals will have been hurtful to watch. Their finest manager in two decades, the Argentine had ingratiated himself with everyone involved with the club in a way few coaches ever get to do. Time is not a commodity most managers enjoy these days, but Bielsa had spent four years becoming an honorary Yorkshireman. But behind the community spirit and fan-focused approach was also an ideal for football that Leeds as a city could get behind.
High-octane, front-foot attacking football is the platonic ideal for match-going fans. Football does not exist purely as entertainment, despite what television programmers or breakaway league honchos will tell you. But every supporter wants to watch their team play in an exciting manner, and Bielsa delivered that in spades. Leeds approached football in the same way Arturo ‘Thunder’ Gatti approached boxing. They would try and hit you as many times as possible before you hit them. Unfortunately for Leeds, this season they seemed to run into an awful lot of Floyd Mayweathers.
Like Sheffield United last term, teams began to figure out Leeds’ approach this year. After going gung-ho all the way to ninth place last season, Bielsa’s brawlers started shipping goals at an alarming rate in their second Premier League campaign. An injury to Patrick Bamford, scorer of 17 league goals the previous season, made matters worse. Unable to stop shipping goals, and unable to score enough to offset the deficit, a decision was made.
Bielsa was sensationally let go, and it was a decision that could have gone one of two ways. Leeds fans were ready to run through walls for Bielsa. Even if they had gone down, most would have forgiven the man who had taken them to the promised land and performed so admirably while there. From a PR perspective, keeping Bielsa was a no-brainer. With just twelve games remaining, any replacement would need to hit the ground running. They would also have to change a demanding and embedded style of play in a short period of time. Enter: Jesse Marsch.
Schooled in the Red Bull system, with stints at New York Red Bulls, RB Salzburg and an ultimately failed stint at RB Leipzig, Marsch was not a unanimously lauded appointment. As the man himself touched upon in interviews, the fact he hails from the United States saw him fighting an uphill battle. There is also a built-in tendency for relegation-threatened sides to go for tried-and-tested coaches when staring down the barrel of the gun. But Marsch is still standing, as are his team. Watford, who did go the traditional route by tasking Roy Hodgson with guiding their survival, were relegated weeks ago. Leeds’ brave gamble, to dispense with a club legend and replace him with an American coach with no Premier League experience, has paid off.
It should be noted that the club they duked it out with for survival on the final day, Burnley, took a similar approach. Sean Dyche had kept Burnley in the Premier League for five seasons. An icon at Turf Moor, there was uproar when he was sacked after a decade in the role. But despite the intense speculation that survival specialist Sam Allardyce would take the reins, the club instead trusted under-23s coach Mike Jackson as their caretaker manager. The approach didn’t pay off, but Jackson earned plaudits nonetheless for running it close. It will be interesting to see if the vastly different fortunes of Marsch, Jackson and Hodgson will be instructive to trigger-happy chairman when sacking season next rolls around.
Ultimately the gamble paid off. It will be interesting to see whether the forward-thinking appointment of Marsch can work long-term. Rather than a survival specialist, Leeds opted for an ambitious and thoughtful tactician. The results were not a runaway success, but the signs are encouraging.
Extrapolated for a full 38-game season, Marsch’s points total of 15 would equate to 47.5 points. This means Leeds’ form under their new boss has been worthy of 13th place in the table, where they would unseat Brentford. Obviously this is not an exact science, as form particularly for the bottom-half teams fluctuates over a season. But it speaks to the impact the American has had in his short spell at the club.
Replacing Bielsa was never going to be easy. The fact Leeds have done so with a coach that was good enough to keep them up will be a relief. Now the club must show more of that same forward-thinking. They will not want to be in this position again. For Marsch, the fire-fighting mission is over. He has repaired Leeds, but now he must be allowed to build the club in his own image. Only then will Leeds fans find out if their club has truly replaced Marcelo Bielsa.