Jesse Marsch had started to resemble a hill walker lacking a compass, map or mobile phone signal who finds himself stranded among unfamiliarly remote terrain as dusk descends. The last glimmers of light finally faded on his Elland Road tenure on Monday when he was sacked as Leeds’s manager 11 months after succeeding Marcelo Bielsa, but as early as New Year’s Eve the endgame had begun.
Leeds had just earned a hard-fought point at Newcastle, but it swiftly became clear all was far from well. “This job’s always stressful,” said a man whose team failed to win his final seven league games and are out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
“It’s like I hate it but I have to keep going. I try to enjoy the moment and be there for everyone but I hate the stress. The enjoyment is the people at the club and the players and the relationships we have.
“There’s nothing better than standing in the technical area right before kick-off; it’s right where you want to be – but it’s also awful, stressful beyond belief. And then, when what defines matches is such a fine margin of success and failure, it’s not so easy to process. For a manager it can be lonely – 2022 had been a big challenge for me, a difficult year.”
The 49-year-old was always refreshingly open emotionally, but a man deeply affected by the sudden death of a close friend, the leading American sports writer Grant Wahl, at the World Cup in Qatar in December, had never been quite that candid or seemed so vulnerable. Marsch and Wahl forged a tight bond as students at Princeton University, where the former majored in history, producing an 117-page thesis entitled: “Shaken not stirred: an evaluation of earthquake awareness in California”.
That academic side of Marsch coexisted with the down-to-earth, streetwise edge acquired during his working-class childhood as the son of a tractor factory production line worker in Racine, Wisconsin. The United States’s midwest is noted for the niceness and humility of its inhabitants, but when Marsch first arrived at Leeds, a certain cockiness that had, as a player, helped turn him into a fearsomely competitive midfield enforcer in the MLS, was manifested by the sort of macho technical area body language that frequently annoyed rival managers.
Behind that sometimes brash facade, the former New York Red Bulls, RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig manager was said to be an empathic, nuanced, intelligent character very much liked by backroom staff at Elland Road and increasingly distraught at the team’s failure to implement his gameplans. “We keep finding ways to lose,” he said recently. “I blame myself for failing to press the right tactical buttons with the players.”
Albeit in a different context, pressing proved a big part of his problem. Leeds won promotion to the top tier and enjoyed a ninth-placed Premier League finish deploying the intense, high-energy, counter-pressing game devised by Bielsa, but by the time the American replaced the Argentinian the team were in a relegation skirmish and looked burned out.
Victor Orta, the director of football, accepted Bielsa’s time was up but remained addicted to his aggressive brand of football and appointed Marsch on the basis he had enjoyed success in Austria, if not Germany, with a broadly similar approach. Much as Leeds often remained exhilarating to watch they never appeared in control of games and always looked liable to concede soft goals.
Another problem was that the new man hated Bielsa’s autocratic managerial style. Marsch immediately allowed players to have their say in tactical debate, but recently admitted a couple struggled to use such freedom responsibly, while others took time to adapt to such cultural change.
Then there were the ongoing injury problems that sidelined the striker Patrick Bamford, who had scored 17 top-flight goals in their first season back in the Premier League. Last summer’s sale of the outstanding Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips to Barcelona and Manchester City respectively hardly helped.
Orta, who is understood to have long fought hard to keep him, had helped secure some potentially transformative January signings in the £35m France Under-21 forward Georginio Rutter, the £10m Austria defender Max Wöber and the Juventus loanee midfielder Weston McKennie. The decision not to give Marsch time to continue working with them – or indeed the promising individuals such as Tyler Adams and Willy Gnonto included in last summer’s mixed bag of buys – reflects not merely the potentially ruinous cost of relegation but the reality that it could jeopardise the full takeover by the San Francisco-based 49er Enterprises, which owns 44% of the shares.
It is no exaggeration to say the club’s future hinges on the new manager’s ability to recalibrate a side arguably ill-suited to the pressing philosophy beloved by Orta.