“The person in this position, when things don’t go well, always gets blamed,” says the Leeds manager, Jesse Marsch. The club have two games to save their Premier League status, not because Marsch has failed since taking over in February but because of a collection of errors that has left them in a perilous position.
Marsch finds his side in 18th place heading into Brighton’s visit on Sunday for a game Leeds will see as their best chance to secure maximum points. Unfortunately for Leeds, Brighton have lost once – a 3-0 defeat away to Manchester City – in their past seven games. They have beaten Arsenal and Tottenham away in that period, so will not fear a trip to Yorkshire.
If you speak to those who know Marsch best, they talk of a highly intelligent man, someone who can change the narrative and outsmart opposition managers. The focus since his arrival 10 games ago has been on his words rather than actions.
Marsch is constantly analysing his own performance and that of his team to find improvements. Leeds have been reduced to 10 men in the first half of their past two games, leaving Marsch to wonder if he is overstimulating his players.
“The key for me is to understand what I’ve learned in this business, what this particular team in this situation and these particular players need and how do I best provide that for them so that they can be all that I believe they can be,” he says. “That’s what the project is from a mentality perspective. Then there is applying the football tactics and style of play so that they understand what their roles are on the pitch.”
Marsch has been hamstrung by those available to him. Leeds failed to make a signing in January. When battling relegation, improving a struggling squad seems a prerequisite, especially since Marcelo Bielsa was sacked less than a month after the window closed.
“All I knew when I stepped into this situation was that I was getting into the fire,” Marsch says. “All I tried to do was learn as quickly as possible how to help the group in that moment to transmit a positive way to give us the best chance in these last two matches to have a chance.”
Bielsa was given the chance to sign players in January but was not interested in those put forward, instead wanting to stick with the small squad he knew. Bielsa is a man of conviction and always thought there was enough quality to get them out of danger. Bielsa was not wrong; there is a Premier League standard team at Leeds but not a squad that can cope with the rigours of it, something that can also be said of relegation rivals Burnley, who are level on points with a game in hand but with a much superior goal difference.
Patrick Bamford has made nine Premier League appearances all season, Stuart Dallas is out with a broken leg, Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips have had lengthy spells on the sidelines. The lack of depth has ensured the absence of the team’s spine has caused major problems. Missing key players from back to front can explain Leeds’s defensive problem that can be summed up in the stats: 77 goals conceded in 36 games.
The players have looked tired in recent times; it is hard to reinvigorate a squad that spent three and a half years working under Bielsa’s intense methods. The injury list could just be a coincidence but when pushed to your physical maximum for so long, it can have a toll on the body.
The lack of options available to Marsch were laid bare against Chelsea on Wednesday. Lewis Bate made his full Premier League debut in midfield, while their biggest attacking threat, Raphinha, played as a right wing-back. Of the six unused substitutes, including 16-year-old Archie Gray, only Jamie Shackleton and Charlie Cresswell had made a league start.
They will be without Luke Ayling and Dan James on Sunday after their red cards. Marsch hopes the home crowd will inspire his team but believes the reckless challenges can partially be blamed on the players’ desire to show much they care. “It’s because they want to do whatever they can for the fans,” he says.
Marsch has been frustrated by the coverage of his use of quotes from Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi among others to inspire his players. He sees it as part of a bigger picture but Leeds’s long-term view can go no further than the final-day away game at Brentford. The club’s ownership group spoke to the players on Thursday in their own attempt to motivate them.
It looks to be a straight shootout between Leeds and Burnley for the final relegation spot. If Marsch feels the need to provide more inspirational quotes to his players, then he should look no further than Leeds’s greatest manager, Don Revie, to remind them: “You get nowt for being second”.