Leeds United have sacked Jesse Marsch, but what should really be expected of the team with the second lowest wage bill in the Premier League?
If the last weekend of Jesse Marsch’s tenure as the manager of Leeds United taught us anything at all, it’s that you can’t depend on other teams losing in perpetuity.
On this particular weekend, four of the bottom eight in the table won while another drew away to a team near the top of the table. Leeds haven’t been in the Premier League relegation places yet this season, but they’re separated from them only by goal difference, with the team immediately below them beating Arsenal with a serious manager now in charge.
Even though Bournemouth and Southampton’s form suggests that they may end up occupying two of the three relegation places by the end of the season, it remains too early to be saying definitively that anyone is ‘down’ yet (though it’s tempting). There’s little in Leeds’ form to suggest they will not be joining them.
Two wins in five days against Liverpool and Bournemouth in November/December were their only Premier League wins since they began the season with two wins and a draw, and although Marsch himself seemed pretty satisfied with his team’s performance at Nottingham Forest, he did concede that he had “to find a way to turn good performances into winning because that’s where we are and where we’ve been for a while”.
It turned out that he didn’t have anything like as long as he thought he had. Barely 24 hours after Forest won the game 1-0, Marsch was out of work.
The irony here is that Leeds seemed to have had a decent enough January transfer window. Max Wober, Georginio Rutter and Weston McKennie all arrived, while the list of players that they offloaded indicated that they were masters of their own window rather than having decisions foisted upon them. In short, Leeds seemed in control of their decision-making throughout January.
The decision to sack a manager less than a week after a transfer window has closed feels somewhat counter-intuitive. The signature of Weston McKennie – an American international with previous experience in the Bundesliga – on loan from Juventus felt like such a Marsch signing, Yet less than a week after he flew in from Turin to sign for Leeds for the rest of this season, the manager has gone.
This is, of course, becoming something of a Premier League trope. The same thing happened to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when he arrived at Chelsea from Barcelona at the end of the summer transfer window to be reunited with Thomas Tuchel, only to find Tuchel being shown the door a few days later. This sort of thing needn’t be a catastrophe – though hindsight doesn’t do much to support this argument in the example given – but it also doesn’t exactly suggest the most joined-up levels of thinking going on behind the scenes at the club.
It’s even possible to argue that, for all that this is Leeds’ third consecutive season back in the Premier League, being near the bottom of the table probably shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. Just last month, Planet Football reported that the estimated Leeds wage bill may be among the lowest in the division, though it’s also worth adding that even this doesn’t provide much succour for Leeds fans when we consider that the two clubs either side of them at the bottom of the spending table are Brentford and Brighton, both of whom are comfortably in the top half of the current Premier League table.
A certain degree of the criticism aimed at Marsch was little more than stereotyping. Comparisons to the fictional television character Ted Lasso seemed a little unfair – Marsch was employed successfully by three arms of the Red Bull football octopus, at New York, Salzburg and Leipzig – and there has long been a history among a proportion of fans and pundits in this country who have seemed to will Americans to fail in the Premier League, as though them succeeding might indicate some sort of cultural imperialism that would be unhealthy for the game here.
But where do Leeds go from here? The obvious reflex reaction for Leeds supporters is to wind the clock back 12 months or so and welcome back Marcelo Bielsa, but this feels like wish fulfilment rather than anything that is likely to actually happen. The early favourite to replace him is Carlos Corberan of West Bromwich Albion. In a sense, this also seems unlikely. After all, Corberan has only been in place at The Hawthorns for three-and-a-half months. But perhaps that club’s precarious financial state and the promise of (at least) half a season of Premier League football could be enough to persuade him.
Otherwise, the candidates seem to fall into three categories: ambitious appointments which look somewhat unlikely (Bielsa and Mauricio Pochettino), continental types with little to no Premier League experience (Ange Postecoglu, Kjetil Knutsen and Marcello Gallardo), and a sprinkling of Premier League usual suspects (Brendan Rodgers and Rafa Benitez).
With such disparate names being mentioned now, Leeds need to make a quick and decisive decision over what they want to prioritise. Experience or a fresh pair of eyes? Is avoiding relegation this season the be-all-and-end-all for Leeds, or will they be casting their eyes towards the summer and beyond as well?
Perhaps the successor to Marcelo Bielsa was always destined to fail. Few other managers in recent times have had the sort of relationship that Bielsa enjoyed with Leeds United supporters, and his departure from the club was met with a reaction from supporters which demonstrated the depth of that bond. And while Jesse Marsch was backed by the club itself in both the summer and January transfer windows, that relationship with the supporters never quite took.
Marsch was certainly nowhere near being the worst manager that Leeds United have ever had – step forward Dave Hockaday, manager for 70 days in 2014 under the baffling ownership of Massimo Cellino, for that dubious ‘honour’ – but there seldom seemed to be much of a bond there with supporters, and that can come to count quite a lot when the owners of a club are making a decision over whether to give a manager a few extra games to try and sort a problem out or whether to jettison them and take a leap into the unknown.
And all of this leaves Leeds United at a crossroads. Like most other Premier League clubs, they’re hooked on Premier League money and survival is important. But they also soared under Marcelo Bielsa, and the club’s owners may well be tempted to try and find a replacement for Jesse Marsch who can build that link again. Whether they could even be successful in doing so is open to question.
For now, the main priority is likely Premier League survival, but what happens beyond that, or what happens should it fail? It’s a decision that the club can’t really afford to get wrong.