It is difficult to assess how important it is that an American manager finally “makes it” in Europe. It would certainly be cool, but what it means for men’s American football depends a mile on how players in the top leagues around the world make it. The USA need a lot of players who will do their best to build a squad for the national team that can make some serious noise either in Qatar in November or later. But you only need one manager, and even then, thanks to US Soccer’s weird and awkward nature, we don’t even know if they’d hire that guy. It’s another frontier Americans need to conquer, but what that means in the long run… I can’t tell you.
Jesse Marsch seems like a good guy. He’s certainly legit and knows exactly what he’s gotten himself into at Leeds United. His ambition not to wrap it up after being sacked by Leipzig and wanting another rift in Europe is to be commended. Especially since he then made the step from a financially strong Bundesliga club to the tougher Premier League with a team that was seriously fighting against it. So, whether it matters or not, it’s natural for Marsch to do well.
When he was hired, almost being in a vacuum seemed like a decent opportunity. While Marcelo Bielsa will always be one of the most popular figures in Leeds history for promoting them and keeping them there for a season, Marsch took charge of a team that had a defense that would be charitably dubbed ‘Cottonelle’. They regularly scored four, five, six goals a game and sometimes got lucky to keep it that low. Add to that the constant fluttering of Everton, Burnley, Norwich and Watford (and even Brentford back then) meant Marsch didn’t need to improve as much to keep Leeds safe. Then he could wait for the summer to reshape the squad to his liking through special preseason and signings.
That vacuum may have disappeared.
Did Marsch improve it? Yes, a touch. Not only did Bielsa’s Leeds deliver goals left and right, but their analytical numbers weren’t too bright either. They weren’t unlucky to have their brains smashed in. They averaged two goals after expected shot per game, which is astronomical (PSxGA accounts for shot placement, which plain xGA doesn’t). Marsch brought that down to 1.6 PSxGA per game, which is hardly good, but it’s better. It’s also a little skewed when you have a game against Man City in just an eight-game sample. Based on expected goals conceded, which doesn’t take shot placement into account, Marsch has reduced Leeds’ xGA per game from 2.1 to 1.4. Again, it’s not a great figure, but it’s a damn good improvement. Leeds’ results have evened out somewhat, thanks in part to keeper Illan Meslier stopping basically every shot he was supposed to, which he wasn’t under Bielsa (-8.6 PSxGA – GA, the worst mark in the league). All stats from FBref.com.
But Marsch’s problem is that Leeds aren’t creating much at the other end. They have scored nine goals in their eight games, and five of those against Watford and Norwich, who are already relegated (either officially like Norwich or almost like Watford). Leeds average exactly the same 1.3 xG per game as under Bielsa. Sure, like Bielsa, Marsch didn’t have Patrick Bamford up front and only recently brought back Kalvan Phillips, who is influencing the game heavily from all over the field. But nobody wants to hear your excuses when you’re relegated, especially when you’re substituting a demigod for the fans.
The biggest problem for Marsch was that Burnley also fired his manager and then suddenly became unbeatable. They’ve taken 10 out of 12 available points since they trashed Sean Dyche and created the modern College of Coaches. It has zoomed them past Leeds in the table, leaving Marsch and Leeds in place just above the relegation zone. And Everton behind them have a game to build on and a rousing home win over Chelsea yesterday to build on. We thought Leeds got that win when they won 3-2 at Wolves on March 18, but they have only won one of their four games since then. The home draw against Southampton in this run really stands out.
And what will make Marsch terribly nervous is the rest of the schedule. In their next game, they travel to Arsenal, who have a Champions League place to lose. Marsch can hope that a few days later they can keep tabs on their game with Spurs and get beaten, but Arsenal don’t really have that luxury. After that, Chelsea will visit Elland Road. Sure, Chelsea just coughed up a hairball against Everton and will have the FA Cup final on their mind just three days later, but it’s still Chelsea.
Meanwhile, Burnley have Villa twice in their last four games and Villa have nothing to play and have seemed decidedly uninterested in anything for weeks. Burnley also takes a hard hit against Spurs, ending the season with Newcastle. Everton have five games left and the first four of those are against teams with nothing to play for. Say Leeds get nothing from the next two against Arsenal and Chelsea, and Everton get four points from Leicester and Watford (hardly a big question, although everything is a big question for this version of Everton these days) and suddenly Leeds are two points out of the Security. Thanks to the spectacular collapse of Bielsa’s empire, Leeds’ goal difference is abysmal and essentially serves as a point for Everton and Burnley (goal difference is the first tiebreaker). This two point gap that could arise is essentially three.
Marsch will hope to make it to the final day when Everton play Arsenal and Leeds away to a Brenford on the Strand. Marsch could get Bamford back before the end of the season but what he can offer after missing most of the season is more hopeful than expected. And Leeds are not secure enough at either end of the field to feel secure in any way.
And Marsch does not get any leeway from the press and fans after his replacement from Bielsa. This kind of sunny view of a game where you’ve been glued 4-0 doesn’t help, even if it’s mostly correct, and plays into the Ted Lasso pack that everyone was so desperate to fit Marsch in, and he’s been trying to run away.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride.