SPECIAL REPORT: Jesse Marsch’s inclusive management style is working wonders with Leeds… but he knows they are not out of trouble yet with the Yorkshire side still in the battle for survival
- Jesse Marsch has worked wonders with Leeds since taking over at Elland Road
- Marsch has implemented new rules at the club that promote inclusivity
- The American coach knows they are still in ‘the middle of a relegation fight’
- Leeds are unbeaten in their last five games and have won three of those matches
Jesse Marsch is standing in the middle of the pitch at Leeds United’s training ground with his left arm gripped tight round the shoulder of England midfielder Kalvin Phillips.
‘You all have to win your individual battles,’ says the Leeds manager to his players. ‘Only if we win those can we hope to win games.’ For emphasis, Marsch clenches his fist. He releases Phillips and the session goes on.
This is Thursday, match day minus two, ahead of today’s home game against Manchester City, ‘the best in the world’ says Marsch. Under the American’s predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa, this was always the day of the infamous murderball, a training session so intense it could bring players to their knees.
Jesse Marsch has turned Leeds’ form around since taking over from Marcelo Bielsa
Under Marsch — hired to save Leeds’ season in February — it’s a day for team shapes and then, at the end, shooting practice. The mood at Thorp Arch is light and Marsch is in the middle of it, hands-on and collegiate. But Leeds are in a relegation fight and that fact escapes nobody.
‘When I came here I assumed I would be knee deep in everything until the end of the season on May 22,’ Marsch tells Sportsmail later.
‘That’s how it is. There are things I’d like to do. For example, I’d like more flexibility of players and positions. But we are still going through principles and it’s the middle of a relegation fight where we have to fight for every point.
‘Everyone is good when it’s easy. But when it’s difficult, how much can you stick to your principles? That’s the question.’
Marsch’s side are undefeated in their last five games and picked up wins in three of them
Bielsa was called to the boardroom and sacked as soon as the final whistle had blown on a 4-0 home defeat by Tottenham on February 26. The great Argentinian coach left Elland Road without saying goodbye to his players but the next day the gravel crunched on his driveway as, one by one, members of his squad arrived unannounced at his house to say farewell and thank you.
Bielsa had to go and his players knew it. Leeds were in freefall, on a run of eight defeats in 11 games. At 66, Bielsa had proved too stubborn to change his attacking style to try to combat his team’s problems. Players were getting injured. They were tired from his relentless workload.
But they also knew they owed him, every one of them. There had been no player revolt as results fell away. Bielsa had taken this group from nowhere into the top flight. Players like Phillips had become internationals on his watch and continued to adhere to his principles without making any complaints, even though the league table and their own instincts told them it was no longer working.
Marcelo Bielsa was dismissed as Leeds boss after a string of losses in the Premier League
So if it is possible to feel relief and sadness at the same time, that is how it was when Bielsa left after a three-and-half-year tenure that elevated him to the status as one of Leeds’ greatest managers.
In contrast to a club like Manchester United, Leeds had at least prepared for that day. Marsch had been identified and spoken to as a possible successor two years previously by director of football Victor Orta while manager at Red Bull Salzburg.
When he subsequently moved to RB Leipzig in Germany, Orta feared he had lost him but it was not the case. The 48-year-old now lives in Harrogate with his wife, Kim, and one of his two sons while he tries to keep Leeds in the top flight.
Marsch has not tried to dissemble all that Bielsa built at the club. Training — especially the non-stop five-a-side sessions — can still be fierce. Pressing the opposition remains a fundamental. But Marsch is happy to be more pragmatic in his bid to get Leeds to safety. He is happy for his team to defend when necessary. They have won three and drawn two of their past five games and Monday’s 0-0 at Crystal Palace was a point that arguably may not have been earned under Bielsa.
‘Defending has helped us to gain momentum,’ Marsch nods. ‘We need to be better with the ball but I can always draw on the mentality of these players to fight.’
Marsch has hailed the role his defence his played in Leeds’ recent success in the league
At Thorp Arch, things are certainly different. The first thing Marsch did on day one was gather his players and tell them they had a third of the season left and he believed them good enough for a top-half finish. His players gave him a round of applause for that. When they won an incredible Friday night game 3-2 at Wolves in mid-March, Marsch gave them a couple of days off.
Bielsa, for his all his genius, was not a communicator. Away from scheduled meetings, he rarely spoke to his players. His obsession with conditioning meant players would be weighed every day.
Marsch has relaxed that, meaning his squad have started to enjoy bonding dinners again without fretting about what the scales may say the next day. Every morning, meanwhile Marsch and his players gather to discover who has ‘sinned’.
Lateness, untidiness, sloppiness. All are ‘offences’ categorised under the coach’s fines system, with offenders obliged to buy gifts for kit men, cleaners, chefs and other members of the club’s support staff. It has, by all accounts, become one of the most treasured parts of the day and Marsch knows he will stand or fall on the back of his unashamedly inclusive and open style of coaching.
Marsch has implemented rules meaning players buy gifts for kit men, cleaners and other staff
‘Being a leader is not about an iron fist and the hierarchy,’ he explains. ‘I am about valuing people and opinion and about ownership. I like to think all this is not a reflection of me but of us and that requires me to have dialogue, give and take and be a good listener.
‘The players are not used to having a manager like that and that’s not just me comparing myself to Marcelo. It’s just I don’t think there are a lot of coaches with that leadership style in our sport. This is what I valued most as a player. I would do anything for the coaches who cared about me, knew who I was and wanted me to be better and be successful.’
On the night Marsch first stepped out on to the Elland Road pitch for a game, his team were swept aside 3-0 by Aston Villa and the home fans sang the name of his predecessor.
It was a night when anger was the overriding emotion and was not a great beginning for a man who arrived to widespread scepticism just because of the place of his birth. That night was instructive. Marsch could tell his players were scared to play in front of their own fans and he knew it had to change.
Marsch says he feels his side were scared to play at Elland Road during defeat to Aston Villa
‘That night was a revelation to me,’ he says. ‘Most places I have been at, the power of the home stadium is only positive. And I don’t mean this negatively towards our fans but against Villa it just wasn’t like that.
‘But the players want to achieve so badly for the fans that sometimes that desire can have a negative effect. Then when the fans see the players are not at their best, they become nervous and the energy of the stadium can shift. So we talked a lot and I was very straight with the group.
‘We’ve had tough discussions here already. It has not always been easy. We are always trying to find positive reinforcement but at times I have to be very clear when we are not meeting standards and make sure that as a group we do not allow ourselves to accept anything other than what we believe is our best.’
In football, time can move quickly. As Leeds won 3-0 at Watford on April 9, the travelling fans sang the name of their new manager for the first time. On the training pitch, things continue to develop, too.
Recently Marsch asked his players if any of them possessed a long throw-in and no hands were raised. So he asked them to have a competition and it transpired the Brazilian winger Raphinha was more than capable.
Leeds used their own strategy to identify winger Raphinha as a long-throw specialist
So now Leeds have a new attacking weapon. ‘We don’t have a throw-in coach, so we had to find our way,’ laughs Marsch.
Leeds continues to feel like a club who want to punch up. Now part-owned by the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise, upgrades are planned for Elland Road, and Orta and Marsch have summer transfer targets identified.
None of this, though, will look much good from the Championship. Leeds’ form is decent but their fixtures are not. After City are games at Arsenal and then at home against Chelsea. This is when the early Marsch era will be defined.
Asked about this, Marsch returns to an earlier theme: ‘We’ve been very straight with each other in that we have to be strong. Do you walk the walk or just talk? Right? That’s what I know.
‘I want to be my best when it’s most difficult and this is where we are now.’
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