SOCCER

The day Jesse Marsch helped Leeds finally leave Marcelo Bielsa

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Injury time lasted three minutes, the standard count whenever a team took enough kicks.

Chelsea were beaten and the points were gone, but even as the table rose, Sam Greenwood chased Reece James, Mateusz Klich dug the defender in the back and Pascal Struijk hacked the ball off his toes. A touchdown tackle, out of place at the time, had the stadium around them howling like wolves as 30,000 souls lined up with Jesse Marsch.

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That was how Marsch wanted it, with audiences feeding on what drove them.

Midway through the second half, Conor Gallagher tried to protect possession near the Leeds line but was harassed to concede a goal kick. Forty yards away, Marsch turned toward the West Stand, one arm raised and a clenched fist in the air, the pressing game flooding his veins.

Goals, wins, aesthetic appeal; that all matters to Marsch, but none of that is more fulfilling than the feeling of his players unleashing physical hell. On Sunday, among the crowd he was trying to win over, the penny dropped dramatically. Marsch’s Leeds have legs, and in more ways than one.

He stood at the entrance to the tunnel as the pitch reluctantly emptied at full time, throbbing and soaking up the atmosphere before a series of interviews cast him back into a calmer, more measured shell.


Marsch was demonstrative throughout the match (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Marsch had been waiting for a game like Leeds’ 3-0 win over Chelsea since the day of his appointment, as Leeds took a leap in the dark by creating huge shoes to fill and having Marsch fill them. Only with such soft football could the club move forward. Only with such soft football could the club hope to overcome the void between Marcelo Bielsa and Marsch. It was 90 minutes but a decisive victory and an era embraced, perhaps for the first time.

“It had nothing to do with pressing, with running fewer miles, with the style of Leeds,” protested Thomas Tuchel but it is rarely usual for a coach to sit down and admit that any defeat is tantamount to surgical destruction.

Marsch, however, knows what he is looking for, what his team building blocks should be, and Leeds have oozed it all: the pressing, the distance, the heat, the burn.

“He may have his opinion,” Marsch said when Tuchel’s comments were put to him, “but the way we played dictated the game, almost entirely.”

Opinions have surrounded Marsch for six months, not all glowing and not just about him. Some in Leeds were skeptical of him due to his background. Some were even skeptical of him because he was American. Some were skeptical of him because he was not Bielsa or certain to match favorably.

There was cultural resistance to the change of head coach at Elland Road and the inescapable idea that Marsch would have to prove himself and more. Even his survival last season was not enough to cement his reputation, beyond the fact that Leeds were determined to start this season with him in charge.

But the final whistle after beating Chelsea had a profound effect, with people talking about the most convincing home win since promotion to the Premier League in 2020, the starting blow with Marsch at the wheel ringing for real. The possibility threatened to leave Leeds with Bielsa, but it did again, potential and spirit wrapped up in a side that overtook Chelsea by more than 10km. “There’s probably still a lot of doubt in me,” Marsch said, “and it’s okay, that’s normal. There will be people who love me, there will be people who hate me. I just want that the team plays with love, passion and conviction.

“I tried not to be flattering, I tried to appreciate what the club is about. This league will keep you honest so we can’t feel too good but it’s a smart crowd here. Winning helps always, but in some ways performance is more important.

The same goes for the decisions on which head coaches are judged. Leeds spent more than £20m ($23.7m) to make Brenden Aaronson their first summer signing and it’s the midfielder’s tenacity, predatory instinct eating up yards in seconds, who caught Edouard Mendy in two minds in the 33rd minute, worrying the goalkeeper by taking a touch he couldn’t afford to take. Aaronson nicked the ball in front of goal and an empty net stood in front of him, the easiest finish he will ever have. A zero and for Chelsea, one foot on the slippery slope.


Marsch is full of praise for Adams (Photo: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

Leeds have committed a further £20million to sign Tyler Adams from RB Leipzig, a second investment in a footballer Marsch knows inside out. There’s wit and skill in Adams’ game, but at the center of his skills is the ability to arm himself with a shovel and dig from the first minute to the last, a radius constant in the wheel of opposition. It was Adams who first injected venom at Elland Road, going into a 50-50 with Gallagher and crossing the ball. Gallagher couldn’t get rid of him all game. “Tyler is another guy playing the best football of his life,” Marsch said, after earlier suggesting Rodrigo was doing the same.

Rodrigo sums up how football comes and goes. There were times last season, especially in the last home game, when friends and allies in the stands were scarce. His deft header from a free-kick from Jack Harrison yesterday, his fourth goal in three games, gave Leeds a 2-0 lead and when he left the pitch late the sound of appreciation almost had him makes it float. Harrison’s form can hit highs and lows, but his attacking numbers fly, delivering as much as Marsch could ask for. His 69th-minute half-volley was a curtain call for Chelsea, leaving Tuchel heading into a pointless argument with the fourth referee.

Tuchel, in his defense, must have wondered where he was. Three months ago he brought Chelsea to Elland Road to face a side that did nothing but turn around and die. Marsch himself couldn’t help but look back on his first home game as head coach two months earlier, a 3-0 loss to Aston Villa in which Leeds did exactly the same. March 10 was a night he stood horribly exposed, a coach jostling for hearts and minds, employed by a club that was losing them. August 21 could be the day those hearts and minds met his.

(Top photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)

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