Where did it all go wrong for Bielsa at Leeds, and how can Marsch secure Premier League survival?

Marcelo Bielsa Leeds United 2021-22Getty Images

The sacking of Marcelo Bielsa has proven, once again, that the great wealth divide between the Premier League and Championship leaves no room for sentimentality.

Leeds United will stand to lose at least £50 million if they are relegated this season, and no matter what anybody says about the team’s recent performances, that is the sole reason chairman Andrea Radrizzani made “the toughest decision I have had to make” in sacking Bielsa.

Bielsa is rightly a Leeds legend. He is not the first to have revived a sleeping giant or taken a Championship club into Premier League mid-table, but few have made such powerful emotional ties in the process. 

In the end, fear of relegation has taken precedence over emotion; over the bond that had made this such a special project. It is a damning indictment of the modern game that relationships like this are no longer considered the most important part of football.

It has been suggested that Bielsa was likely to leave at the end of the season anyway, and therefore to bring his departure forward by a few months is pragmatic rather than callous.

But even if that was true, Bielsa deserved a chance to fight against the drop and leave, on his own terms, to a standing ovation at Elland Road.

There is reason to believe that fight could have been successful, despite the bottom having completely fallen out of Leeds over the last few weeks. 

Yes, this has all the hallmarks of a typical Bielsa collapse, but it should be noted that prior to this six-game winless run – which included games against three of the ‘Big Six’, by the way – they had won back to back Premier League games.

Bielsa Premier League table GFX
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Leeds are still not in the bottom three and, with Kalvin Phillips and Liam Cooper returning in a fortnight, a revival was possible.

Bielsa deserved that chance, not least because he should not be a victim of his own success. Most of the Leeds squad is still Championship standard. He ought not to be punished for failing to repeat a miracle.

Radrizzani will feel justified, however, given the noteworthy decline, although the underlying numbers point to a simple story of injuries disrupting Bielsa’s season.

Their expected goals (xG) and expected goals against (xGA) are significantly worse than last year. At the current rate, by the end of the campaign their xG will be down by 12 and their xGA up by 13, a 25-goal swing that neatly captures how Leeds’ problems have come in the two penalty boxes.

If that sounds obvious, the point here is that Leeds continued to play with the same tactical dexterity, desire, and skill in the overall construction of their attacks and defensive organisation. What was missing was those final actions – the actions that would have been made by Patrick Bamford in attack or Cooper in defence.

Compared to last season Leeds are hitting the same numbers of shots (13.7 per game) and creating a similar number of chances (9.88 per game, down from 10.4), but their conversion rate has dropped from 11.9 per cent to 8.2%. Bielsa really needed Bamford.

Stuart Dallas Leeds United GFX
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Defensively, Leeds’ passes per defensive action (PPDA, a metric used to measure a team’s pressing ability) is actually improved this season, down from 10.3 to 9.7, while their interceptions have gone up slightly, 10.8 per game compared to 10.4 in 2020-21.

But Leeds are leaking goals because they miss Cooper, who last season topped Leeds charts for interceptions (2.4 per game), tackles (2.7 per game), blocks (1.3 per game), and aerials won (3.8 per game).

Clearly something did shift, mind, over the last six games, when exhaustion and low confidence saw the high-risk tactical strategy fall like a house of cards.

That is always the way with something so fine-tuned and so attack-minded, but with Cooper and Phillips returning, a sense of control and order may well have re-emerged in time for a relatively kind run-in.

That optimistic state of affairs now awaits Jesse Marsch, the former New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Salzburg head coach who is set to be named as Bielsa’s successor.

Jesse Marsch RB Leipzig GFX
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Marsch’s six-month tenure with RB Leipzig earlier this season went very badly, a mutual termination coming with the Champions League club sat 11th in the Bundesliga, but Leeds fans should not be put off by this hiccup.

Until then Marsch’s career had been on a sharp upward trajectory, and even the ending at Leipzig can be read positively.

Marsch was a bad fit because Julien Nagelsmann had altered the tactical identity of the club, turning Leipzig into a more patient and possession-based side with less of an interest in high-intensity pressing. It was too difficult for Marsch, from the German school, to swing things back the other way.

That is by no means his mission at Leeds – they are a club with a tactical vision that is largely shared by the incoming head coach.

The underlying principles that led him to consecutive (and record-breaking) doubles at Salzburg are similar to those of Ralf Rangnick, who first appointed Marsch as his assistant manager at Leipzig.

As Rangnick’s protege, it will be no surprise to learn Marsch believes in hard pressing and exploiting the attacking transitions with sharp vertical football. He expects his teams to tackle high up the pitch and use the ensuing disorganisation to break the defensive lines, getting quickly in behind in typical Germanic style.

This makes for a seamless transition from Bielsa, albeit with some of the murder-ball reined in. Marsch is not as dogmatic - who is? – and will take a calmer and more pragmatic approach to the task.

Crucially, he does not believe in the man-to-man pressing system used by Bielsa, which means an end to those wild battles and the emptying of central midfield.

Instead, Leeds will be organised in a system that works hard to remain compact, keeping small distances between players and pressing in a way that maintains shape - and closes down spaces, not men.

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Leeds will be more like Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton; defined by pressing and attacking transitions, but understanding the necessity of dropping into a safer midblock for long periods when facing stronger opposition.

That easing off of the most demanding and exposing aspects of the Bielsa regime, coupled with the return of Cooper,  Phillips and potentially Bamford from injury, could be enough to restore some balance at Elland Road. 

It will not be as exciting, or as emotional, but as the next step on Leeds’ mission to become an established Premier League outfit it is a sensible appointment.