Leeds United v Wolves: Leeds in transition, but who isn’t in the Premier League this season?

Leeds United start their 2022-23 Premier League season at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers this afternoon not yet ready for it. With the transfer window open for the best part of a month, with new players, managers and ideas still bedding in and after a summer squeezed at one end by an unnecessarily long Nations League programme and at the other by an early start to accommodate a terribly-timed winter World Cup, no club is.

The Whites have so far drawn a blank searching for a centre-forward and start a campaign more dependent than ever on the full-backs for width with a central defender on the left. The experienced back-up goalkeeper they would like is not due until next week – when Joel Robles is expected – and uncertainty over the future of Marcelo Bielsa stalwart Mateusz Klich is not an open secret, just open knowledge.

Injuries and suspensions means not every key Leeds player’s season starts today.

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A coach in Jesse Marsch who “knows the games are so damn good” having only just kept Leeds in the division last season might be panicked were everyone not in the same boat. With everything going on hold for six weeks in November, it might not be until after Christmas it really takes shape.

Jesse Marsch, 
Leeds United  manager (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)Jesse Marsch, 
Leeds United  manager (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
Jesse Marsch, Leeds United manager (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

As things stand it is hard to know what we will get from Leeds. Chairman Andrea Radrizzani has targeted “tenth to 14th”, Marsch’s only goal right now is improving on 17th. Another relegation battle cannot be discounted.

Marsch is very much a can-do, positive-thinking American but his optimism is rooted in strong backing from his board and director of football Victor Orta – not only in the cost and quantity of signings but also their identities. And he has had six weeks to do what he would have loved to upon replacing Bielsa in March but lacked the time and league table wriggle room – namely teaching his players exactly how he wants the game played.

It helps that three of his summer signings – and unusually in this era we can confidently say they are his – knew it inside out before pitching up. Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams and Rasmus Kristensen have an idiosyncratic league to get used to, but not a coach, having all played under Marsch before.

It makes them important beyond their footballing abilities.

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New look: Marc Roca will look to spring attacks from defensive midfield, just as Kalvin Phillips did (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)New look: Marc Roca will look to spring attacks from defensive midfield, just as Kalvin Phillips did (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
New look: Marc Roca will look to spring attacks from defensive midfield, just as Kalvin Phillips did (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)

“It’s easy to say those are my players and the others aren’t but they’re all our players,” stresses Marsch. “But when it comes to the players I worked with in the past, the one thing that’s been a benefit and I underestimated is because we’ve worked together before, they understand a little bit more what the behaviours and tactical model looks like and they’ve been able to exhibit that at a high level on a daily basis. They’ve been a positive example to the other players to continue their adaptation.

“And they’re good people too.”

As Marsch’s first signing and an American he brought to Europe with Red Bull Salzburg, 21-year-old Aaronson is emblematic of his recruitment drive and gives an insight into the other qualities he has been seeking. Aaronson is likely to start as a winger, but was a regular in the hole behind the strikers for Salzburg last season.

“He could play like a false nine or nine-and-a-half (Harry Kane-style) position as well,” says Marsch. “Brenden’s work ethic is different than probably any player I’ve ever known. His ability to cover ground and his intelligence and ability to adapt is one of the best I’ve seen.

“The league demands the best from people. Brenden will know physically he will have to manage some situations. Coming from wide into the middle suits him maybe a little bit more physically, but anywhere he plays along our front four he knows how to find space and challenge opponents in behind. He’s clever in tight spaces and good around the goal. He’s been good in pre-season. I know he’s going to get better.”

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Not that footballing intelligence is the preserve of the new boys. It is why Marsch is relaxed having Pascal Struijk at left-back as Junior Firpo and Stuart Dallas recover from injuries.

“It’s not his natural position but Pascal still is mobile enough,” insists Marsch.

“He’s intelligent, technically good, he understands the tactics. His flexibility and positioning have been quite good.

“We’ve shown him a lot of videos, talked a lot about different phases of the game and what we want it to look like.

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“He helps us on set-pieces by being a little bit bigger, he helps us defend a little bit harder in and around the box. I think he’s ready for a big season.”

Marsch stresses flexibility so often you wonder if he resents being typecast but the whole point of this pre-season is for a clearer way of playing to emerge.

Radrizzani calls Marsch’s style “more vertical” than Bielsa’s which is code for more long ball but Roca is a classical Spanish deep-lying playmaker hungry to start attacks by taking the ball off his centre-backs as Kalvin Phillips did. Leeds were unsophisticated at times in the scramble for points under Marsch last season but seem to want to change that.

The regular pre-season formation was a 4-2-3-1 where the “three-quarter line” of players between midfield and attack spend most of their time centrally, swapping positions, which is why Kristensen – who will relish it – and Struijk will need to do a lot of crossing. It was Leeds’s go-to shape in the last 12 games of 2021-22, whereas Wolves have spent their summer getting used to a back four.

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This season, it feels every Premier League club can legitimately use the well-worn excuse of being “in transition”.

“We’re already excited about what’s been done,” says Marsch of Leeds’s. Exactly what that amounts to will take a while to properly work out but starts in earnest at 3pm.

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