Leeds United signings show Elland Road board are backing Jesse Marsch’s philosophy
The longer Jesse Marsch’s 12-game stint as Leeds United coach went on last season, the more the Whites started to look like a Marcelo Bielsa team – at least in terms of shape.
But given what the American inherited, 2021-22 was just about doing the necessary to stay in the Premier League. Having narrowly achieved that, the season to come will be more about doing it his way. And whilst many Leeds fans might prefer to replicate Bielsaball, at least Marsch looks like being given the tools he needs.
Kalvin Phillips’s imminent departure to Manchester City, followed by Raphinha’s sale – which seems a lot more inevitable than his destination – will take away Bielsa’s two star performers.
A broken leg will deprive them of stalwart Stuart Dallas, and Luke Ayling may not be back from surgery when the new campaign kicks off on August 6. Patrick Bamford seems certain to face greater competition, even beyond improving 20-year-olds Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood.
The team is evolving rapidly, perhaps faster than planned.
Strangely, Marsch’s first game, at Leicester City in March, might provide more clues as to where it is heading than his most recent ones.
That day the team was sent out in a most un-Bielsa-like way. Where the Argentinian liked to give his players space and create one-on-one battles, Marsch prefers to gang up on opponents. Leeds were 4-2-2-2, their wingers tucked in as inside-forwards, their centre-forward no longer in splendid isolation.
The trouble was, it did not really suit their best player, Raphinha. Like most Bielsa wingers, he enjoyed the ball near the touchline and exposing full-backs. So 4-2-2-2 became 4-2-3-1 and eventually more like Bielsa’s 4-1-4-1, just played differently.
But remove Raphinha – and his dipped performances in the second half of a draining season hinted that asking him to stay reluctantly in a World Cup year might be counter-productive if someone meets Leeds’s asking price – and there is no need for those allowances. Phillips is heading to Manchester City, where he can more easily reprise the deep-lying playmaker job he became so brilliant at with his boyhood club.
Raphinha’s fellow winger Jack Harrison showed more adaptability tucking in but is said to be interesting Newcastle United.
The players coming into Elland Road and those linked suggest a determination from director of football Victor Orta to sign Marsch players, not just people he can work with.
New right-back Rasmus Kristensen, adept at the attacking needed to make an otherwise narrow formation work, was under Marsch at Salzburg; Brenden Aaronson was identified for the previous coach but gets a tick for being American, and another for his time at Salzburg. American Tyler Adams, mooted as a Phillips replacement, played for Marsch at Red Bull’s New York and Leipzig franchises, although still being at the latter could be problematic given the ongoing legal dispute over Jean-Kevin Augustin’s 2020 non-signing.
Marc Roca’s arrival might be a welcome sign Orta is not just working through Marsch’s old squads, but he has been holding the midfield under another coach from the Red Bull factory, Bayern Munich’s Julian Nagelsmann.
“I like having a team that’s very flexible,” insisted Marsch last season. “I would like to have more flexibility with formations and players in position.”
Even so, we can probably expect to see the trend of more bodies in central midfield – making it harder for them to be counter-attacked, easier to press and attack in gangs – continuing.
Portugal’s Otavio might be a winger like Raphinha, but the reported target can also play centrally. Aaronson played in the hole for his club last season, but (a bit) wider for his country.
The more expansive Bielsa shape might be better to watch, and Leeds would rather have a committed Phillips and Raphinha than not, but this is the real world.
The signs are Marsch will be given the personnel to play as he wants, the rest is up to him.