Over his three-and-a-half-year tenure, Marsch’s predecessor as coach Marcelo Bielsa constructed the squad in a way that relied on the adaptability of his players to allow him to keep a small group and for the club to afford greater quality over quantity. The Argentinian was sacked in February, after the transfer window closed.
Leeds had a bid for central midfielder Brenden Aaronson - ironically a former Marsch player - rejected by Red Bull Salzburg in January, and turned down the chance to sign Harry Winks and Donny van de Beek, leaving the squad as it was for the second half of the campaign, minus youngster Cody Drameh, who was loaned to Cardiff City.
Bielsa’s policy was hugely successful in the previous two seasons but injuries to key players have stretched the squad so much in 2021-22 that the Whites find themselves in a Premier League relegation battle in May,
The sole senior out-and-out centre-forward, Patrick Bamford, has only been able to start seven of 34 league games, Junior Firpo the solitary left-back 16 and holding midfielder Kalvin Phillips 14.
Winger Daniel James has therefore made most of his starts as a makeshift centre-forward, centre-back Robin Koch as a midfielder and midfielder Jamie Shackleton has played more at right-back or wing-back. The only senior specialist in that position, Luke Ayling, has kicked off 12 games in central defence, as opposed to 13 in his preferred position. Despite that, the indications from behind the scenes are not to expect a huge recruitment drive this summer. Asked if he would look to sign more specialists, Marsch hinted he might not.
“I like having a team that’s very flexible,” he replied. “We’ve played a lot of 4-2-3-1 so far, we started 4-2-2-2. I would like to have more flexibility with formations and players in position, so that we can have also flexibility in how we play with the ball and how we play against the ball.
“We haven’t been able to build that in enough because we’re still getting through principles and ideas of how to play the way we want to play, in a relegation fight where we have to fight for every point. It stunts the project, in certain ways, because we have to focus so heavily on results, which I never like to do.”
Saturday’s broken leg for Stuart Dallas, who has played as either wing-back, either full-back or in central midfield to a consistently high standard only increases the pressures. Firpo was making his first start in seven weeks against Manchester City but if he is injured or unable to last 90 minutes as was the case at the weekend, the next logical left-back stand-ins are central defenders Pascal Struijk and Leo Fuhr Hjelde, himself recovering from injury.
“I know that Dan’s not normally a striker, Robin’s not normally a six (holding midfielder), Stuart’s not normally a left-back, but that’s where we are and we’ve gotten results because the roles have fitted together in a way to help us still be effective in matches,” said Marsch before Dallas’s injury.
Dropped to the bench at the weekend, James has not scored in his last 13 appearances for club and country, and has only four Leeds goals since moving from Manchester United in August, but Marsch has valued the job he has done leading the press as a makeshift centre-forward.
“I’ve spoken to Dan multiple times and I know this is not his desired position or his best position,” acknowledged Marsch. “But at Palace (in last week’s 0-0 draw) we controlled them a bit more and it’s a lot of the times because of Dan’s ability against the ball and in pressing situations, making it difficult for the opponent, and being a threat to get in behind.
“I’m still trying to figure out how to use Dan in more wide positions and then do we put Joffy (Joe Gelhardt) up there more? Do we put Rodrigo up there more? Do we put Sam Greenwood up there more? I’m just trying every day in training to evaluate where we’re at and then think about tactically what we need to fight the best for points.”
Gelhardt and Greenwood are both young, and the latter - seen more as a No 10 - is yet to start a Premier League game. When Rodrigo signed from Valencia in the summer of 2020 he was seen as competition for Bamford who could also play wide but both Bielsa and Marsch have preferred him playing off a targetman.
Bamford has suffered injuries to his ankle, thigh and foot this season, having featured in every game but one in the previous two campaigns.
Marsch spoke about trying to free Dallas up to play as one of his two holding central midfielders but that will now have to go on hold with the Northern Ireland international set for surgery in London on a fractured femur. No timescale has been put on his return, but the 31-year-old faces a lengthy rehabilitation period.
Two points above the relegation zone having played a game more than Everton, Leeds complete their season with matches at Arsenal, at home to Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion and at Brentford. The Whites are level on points with Burnley who also have four games to play but have a vastly superior goal difference.