- Hovering above the relegation zone, Leeds United sacked Marcelo Bielsa on Sunday
- His departure came after four successive losses, including 6-0 and 4-0 defeats to Liverpool and Tottenham respectively
- Jesse Marsch was appointed as Bielsa’s successor on Tuesday
- The American was last at RB Leipzig in Germany
After almost four years at the club, taking them from the Championship back to the Premier League after a 16-year absence, it was announced on Sunday that Marcelo Bielsa has departed Leeds United. It came the day after a 4-0 home loss to Tottenham, itself only three days after a 6-0 hammering at Liverpool. They’ve been on a rotten run of form, with just one point from their last six games, and they’re hovering perilously close to the relegation zone two points ahead of Burnley in 18th, who have two games in hand.
Bielsa’s Leeds record
Since Bielsa took over in the 2018 off-season, it’s rarely been quiet at the club. There was the ‘Spygate’ controversy in his first season, with Bielsa sending a spy to Derby County’s training ground, something criticised by then-Derby manager Frank Lampard and investigated by the EFL. That season, in which Leeds signed Patrick Bamford for £7 million, Leeds finished third and lost in the play-off final to Aston Villa.
There’s perhaps a feeling that, had Bielsa not been Bielsa, a cult hero and maverick figure held in extremely high regard across South America and by some of the world’s best coaches, Pep Guardiola’s tribute after the Argentinian’s sacking says it all, he wouldn’t have lasted so far into this season. But ultimately, given Leeds’ recent form and performances, the board had to act.
In their first season back in the top-flight, the club finished a respectable 9th, just eight points off the top floor and 31 clear of relegation. Top scorer Bamford bagged 17 goals in the league, the likes of Kalvin Phillips, Raphinha and Stuart Dallas won a number of plaudits for their displays, and Bielsa even got third place in the Best FIFA Football Coach award at the end of 2020. All in all, a good season.
This season’s struggles
This season has been different, however. Some of the new signings haven’t kicked on as much as the fans perhaps would have hoped. Junior Firpo, a £12.8 million arrival from Barcelona at left-back, has been criticised with former Leeds favourite Paul Robinson the latest to be less than impressed. Bamford’s injury struggles certainly haven’t helped either, likewise those of Phillips.
While much admired by football’s romantics, Bielsa was criticised for not adjusting his style in the face of poor form, his pressing style being scrutinised this season as other teams began to find them out.
However, all is not lost. Relegation is a real worry, particularly in light of Newcastle United’s takeover and upturn in form, but it’s quite tight near the bottom and a couple of wins could make the situation look very different. Daniel James, who arrived in the summer for a fee thought to be around £25 million, is still only 24 and has probably performed better for Leeds than he did for Manchester United. He could be very useful indeed in the battle to stay up.
Can Jesse Marsch turn it around?
Jesse Marsch comes in with decent pedigree, having made his way from his native US to the Premier League via Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig. While he might be something of an unknown quantity in the UK thus far, he left Red Bull New York as coach with the most wins in their history, led Red Bull Salzburg to the double in his first season and has worked with the likes of Erling Haaland, Patson Daka and Karim Adeyemi. And there was that game against Liverpool in the Champions League in October 2019, where a memorable half-time team talk almost got Die Roten Bullen an unlikely point.
As a coach, Marsch is influenced by current Man United interim manager Ralf Rangnick who he worked under as a coach at RB Leipzig. He very much believes in the Red Bull tradition of a high press. It didn’t work quite as well when he returned to manage the Bundesliga club after their spell with current Bayern Munich manager Ralph Nagelsmann saw something of a tactical shift. The team struggled to adapt Marsch's ways and he left after just five months.
Another factor is that managers from North America haven’t had a great track record over in the UK. Bob Bradley’s ill-fated spell at Swansea in 2016 lasted just a couple of months, the club languishing 19th in the Premier League when he was sacked just after Christmas. David Wagner, raised in the US and playing for them internationally despite being born in Germany, fared a little better at Huddersfield, getting them promoted and keeping them in the division in their maiden top-flight season, before leaving the following year.
Marsch is surely well-placed to buck this trend, however. His spell in charge of Leipzig notwithstanding, he’s had a successful managerial career thus far and Leeds certainly have the players to avoid relegation this term. Former players have spoken highly of Marsch’s man-management style, and this should only help in the club’s quest to achieve a third consecutive season in the Premier League. Based on his record, and that of Rangnick’s, it’s thought that he could line his new team up in a 4-2-2-2 style, a departure from Bielsa’s favoured 4-1-4-1.
Leeds have a mixed run of fixtures coming up, meeting Leicester City away on Saturday before a midweek game at home to Aston Villa the following Thursday. They’re again at home that weekend, against relegation rivals Norwich City, before games against Wolves, Southampton, Watford, and Chelsea. None of these games will be easy though they’ll likely be banking on three points against the Canaries. Wins against Leicester or Villa would surely endear Marsch to the Elland Road faithful. Can he begin with a bang?
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