Jesse Marsch – Leeds United – Tactical Analysis (2021-22)

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After years of joy and tactical transformations under Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds United finally made the decision to sack the club legend, with the club desperately clinging on to Premier League safety. Jesse Marsch came in as his successor, and brought with him a sense of optimism that Leeds could stay up for another season. Unfortunately, Marsch’s arrival in West Yorkshire has been a roller coaster ride for Leeds so far, with a mix of remarkable highs and desperate lows. The club needed to wait until the final day to secure their safety, ultimately achieving a solid tally of 38 points from 38 matches. So with that, after securing safety, we bring you what you’ve all been waiting for – our Jesse Marsch Tactical Analysis for 2021-22.

PICKING UP BIELSA’S BROKEN PIECES

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On the pitch, Jesse Marsch may have inherited one of the most energetic sides in the Premier League, but the mental drainage of having to play under Marcelo Bielsa’s vicious approach evidently took its toll on the squad. After winning three of his side’s first six matches in charge, Marsch elucidated just how difficult his task to keep Leeds in the league was going to be, telling talkSPORT that his players were physically and mentally drained from Bielsa’s training methods.

“These players were overtrained. It led to them being physically, mentally, psychologically and emotionally in a difficult place to recover from week to week

– Jesse Marsch in an interview back in April.

Marsch not only had this uphill battle to climb in helping his players continue to perform under physical fatigue, but within the change of tactical ideologies to a zonal pressing system rather than man-to-man. All seemed well and good for Marsch’s men up to a certain point, but in the lead-up to the end of the season, the fatigue took its toll, and the results suffered.

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The defensive performances were particularly shocking, and with Burnley and Everton picking up points around them, Leeds seemed doomed for relegation with three matches to go. But in the end, Marsch kicked on with a dramatically late draw against Brighton and an impressive final day win against Brentford, ending on 15 points from 12 games to keep the The Whites in the division. Early preparations for the new season will be important so the fanbase doesn’t have to endure another year of agony near the foot of the table.

System of Play: 4-2-3-1

To say there’s been one out and out formation every single minute for Jesse Marsch’s Leeds would be taking an ignorant view. However, when identifying his preferred system out of the many options he’s cycled through, the most prominent would be the 4-2-3-1. This shape adapts between the phases of the game, becoming more of a 4-4-2 to 4-2-4 out of possession, particularly in the team’s high-block. But with a ‘number ten’ clearly playing below the team’s number nine and dropping in to pick up the ball in possession, the 4-2-3-1 has been a relative staple of Marsch’s time in charge of Leeds.

Defending Leeds’ goalposts for the second and a half season running is Illan Meslier, a diamond in the rough when it comes to goalkeepers. One of the league’s best (or most required) shot stoppers and potentially a future French international, the only massive downside to the 22-year-old’s game is his distribution – dropping from an 80% pass success in 2020-21, to 73% in 2021-22. The back four features the not-so-formidable quartet of Junior Firpo, Pascal Struijk, Diego Llorente and Luke Ayling. Of those four, the two La Liga acquisitions have taken particularly polarizing paths since arriving at Elland Road.

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Firpo often lacks positional awareness (he’s not the only one) whilst failing to offer an awful amount going forward. Llorente meanwhile has shown off his expert ball-playing abilities under Marsch this season and remains one of the only consistent defenders, despite his occasional defensive woes of his own. Pascal Struijk and Robin Koch have battled for the spot alongside him, with Leeds captain Liam Cooper also staking his claim when fit. Then there’s the formidable Luke Ayling, who having been with the Peacocks since their EFL days, is a real leader and fan-favourite in the team.

But let’s get one thing straight – Leeds’ defensive record has been abysmal this season. You could ask questions about the Premier League readiness of all the players listed above, and only Ayling has firmly nailed down his place in the team. Firpo in particular never convinced despite commanding a €15 million fee from Barcelona, with Marsch resorting to the versatile Stuart Dallas in the position during Leeds’ run-in instead.

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Discouragingly, frequent midfield partnerships under Marsch’s reign have also been few and far between. The American coach has been fortunate enough to restore Kalvin Phillips back into the fold toward the end of the campaign – a masterful midfielder who makes a massive difference to Leeds’ ability to play out from the back and stunt the opposition’s central penetration. The box-to-box energy of Mateusz Klich and Stuart Dallas would likely be Marsch’s preferred options to partner Phillips, but Adam Forshaw and Pascal Struijk have been required to fulfill the void more than the American would have wanted.

In the attack (finally an area that Struijk hasn’t filled in!), Marsch has favoured a clear front four of Raphinha, Rodrigo, Jack Harrison and Dan James. All four offer a certain dynamism and pressing intensity that embodies Marsch’s philosophy, and it’s clear to see why they’ve all been regular starters under the high pressing, quick transitioning tactics deployed. As a half-baked false nine to number ten, Rodrigo has been particularly impressive, while Jack Harrison has also seen a boost in form under Marsch’s influence. With the pace and power of Raphinha on the ball and Dan James’ intelligent running off the ball, Leeds often favour their right when kickstarting attacks, as Jack Harrison arrives late from the other side to hammer home the finish. Marsch hasn’t managed to restore much stability to Leeds, but this is the one area in which he made an immediate impact.

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Throughout the 90 minutes, Leeds’ shape can change often and intelligently. Improvisation has been imperative to success under Marsch; not only from being thrust into a relegation battle, but from adapting to injuries, players being sent off, and the evolution of the match. This has led to experiments out of possession, with the likes of Raphinha miserably dropping into a back five as a right wing-back against Chelsea, Jack Harrison joining a midfield three, and 20-year-old Joe Gelhardt being given regular minutes up top. With a full season under his belt next year and a few signings in the areas Leeds desperately need most, Marsch may be able to showcase his adaptability to greater success next season.

With that, we take a pause in this article to ask – who should Leeds sign next season? They’ve been eyeing up Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson as a potential Raphinha replacement, but greater reinforcements are evidently needed all over the pitch – particularly at the back. Answer with your thoughts below!

With the personnel and system of play in mind, let’s uncover Marsch’s over-arching tactics at Leeds this season, that helped keep The Whites in the league.

DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLES

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One of the most effective strategies Marsch has implemented since arriving would be his hallmark ball-oriented press. Marsch’s pressing mentalities are not overly complicated nor difficult for players to implement, but require a level of ferocity and endurance that can be difficult to physically live up to. The players have responded brilliantly, with the front four leading the way in a 4-2-4 to 4-2-2-2 high press. If the full-backs push on to limit gaps and increase compactness, the shape can even look 2-4-4, with the full-backs pressing wide men as they drift in deep. Within this mentality and approach, Leeds had particular success in recent matches against teams like Palace, Brighton and Brentford, that favour patience in passing around the ball between their centre-backs, looking for the right moments to play forward. The quest for the opposition to play through the middle becomes all the more difficult, with the tough tackling Kalvin Phillips waiting to pounce in behind.

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At Salzburg, Marsch never shied away from illustrating the intent behind his side’s pressing structures – speaking about the quest to score goals from winning the ball back high the pitch. This is signified by Leeds’ immediate verticality and powerful ball carrying in attacking transitions, where they have achieved some of their best attacking moments this season through their intense defensive style.

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Marsch has also smartly stood by the 4-4-2-esque shape out of possession even despite utilizing Rodrigo in a deeper role in possession. This ensures that Leeds can double-up on opposition centre-backs right from the front, limiting that central penetration, and particularly passes into half-spaces, where two strikers can better cover a crucial area of the field. When executed successfully, this forces the opposition to go long or toward the touchline, which in turn causes turnovers.

Over the full season, Leeds have proven they have the squad to suit this approach, as they accumulated the most tackles + interceptions per 90 at 39.5. This is even more impressive given their above-average 51.9% possession over the course of the season, showing they aren’t just taking advantage of long periods without the ball. But unsurprisingly, especially given they’ve made 20.8 tackles per game this season, the group also now carry the unfortunate record for most yellow cards in a single Premier League season, at 101.

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While this showcases an unwavering desire and aggressive mentality to win the ball back at all costs, it also showcases a lack of discipline, which will need rejigging next season under Marsch. But unfortunately for Leeds, their defensive woes don’t stop at discipline.

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Illan Meslier’s impressive shot-stopping numbers from last season have seen a significant drop (75.1% to 65.6% in 2021-22). Even more discouragingly, he saved 5.3 shots more than expected last season, compared to -7.8 this season. With the entire Leeds defense crumbling under the pressure and uncertainty, The Peacocks kept just 5 clean sheets in 2021-22 compared to 11 in 2020-21. They conceded 79 goals across the campaign, ensuring that if they finished level on points with Burnley, they’d be doomed for relegation on goal difference.

Even despite the lack of Premier League readiness among many of their individuals, the real problems lie within the cohesion between the back four. No matter which four are playing – and it has changed frequently – they are never able to hold a line together. Nobody is preaching for them to adapt their game to such an extent that they are playing a fearless offside trap, like Liverpool. But greater communication between the four of them would go a long way.

The image above is from the recent 1-1 draw against Brighton and shows how the Seagulls could have taken the lead earlier than they managed. Already, Firpo is out of position, causing Cooper to have to shift across. Phillips meanwhile steps up to try and keep McAllister off-side, without realizing Koch and Raphinha have dropped five yards into their own eighteen yard-box. In the end, Mateusz Klich recovers to make a last-ditch-block, bailing the back-four out of their misery.

In addition to this poor defensive organization, Leeds are incredibly susceptible to individual errors. Llorente is the only player that stands out with his pressure success of 38.3%, but even he can be rash in the tackle and caught out of position. Of all the teams in the Premier League, none have made more clear-cut errors leading to shots this season than Leeds’ 14.

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As we’ve investigated, Leeds already cause some of their own problems because of their poor positioning and poor discipline, but Marsch’s naivety to adapt his defensive structure also curates bigger issues. Without much pace and power at the back, playing a high defensive line and opting for compactness in the team’s high-block poses a greater risk of losing goals from long balls. Compounding matters, Mesler’s not the most capable of Sweeper Keepers in behind, nor does he make much of an attempt to fulfill that type of role.

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It’s very easy to spot these inequalities and point the finger at Jesse Marsch, but his continued desire to play a zestful gegenpressing style results in the high line he adopts, and provides much excitement for spectators. Equally, once he brings in the best-suited players for his style (i.e. more speed in his defensive line), success will soon transpire.

ATTACKING PRINCIPLES

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Leeds, like most English sides, like to play the ball out from the back, as the rewards can be remarkable. But in Leeds’ case, it can also become very unsuccessful. Recently, in their away fixture against Arsenal, Meslier found himself caught toiling with the ball in his own six-yard area. This was a fundamental error when competing with the energetic front four of Nketiah, Odegaard, Saka and Martinelli.

Above, you can see Nketiah’s relentless desire that gave the Gunners an early lead, after completely catching the goalkeeper off guard. This kind of error comes down to more than just Meslier’s individual woes, but a lack of movement and proper organization to best support the keeper. At times, Marsch’s men have been too nonchalant with their passing, when directness would simply be the better approach to engage their fervid front four earlier in moves.

Luke Ayling’s long switch to Jack Harrison above displays an excellent moment where Leeds were able to be progressive in finding a switch of play. With the likes of Kalvin Phillips and Rodrigo dropping in to pick up the ball, Leeds could have used greater central penetration to then thrust more long passes into runners in behind. Instead, they generally utilized close combinations in the wide areas to break pressure, before using the power of their front four only after working the ball patiently into the opposition half. This is another area in which Marsch will need to see improvement next season, with Leeds completing the 8th lowest percentage of their passes this season in the league despite boasting higher possession than most.

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Higher up the pitch, there is an evident focus for Leeds to make the pitch as wide as possible. The wing-backs typically make overlapping runs one at a time, with Raphinha and Jack Harrison already holding width or looking to get on the ball in the half-spaces. Knowing the individual talent they have out wide, Leeds appoint a 1v1 approach, getting the wingers into encouraging positions to go directly toe-to-toe with the opposition full-backs. To represent their strong wing play motivations, the top three for expected assists per 90 since the change of manager are all wide players (Junior Firpo, Raphinha, and Jack Harrison). Raphinha tops the list in most categories, including his 3.67 shot-creating actions and 2.1 key passes per 90.

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Beyond Raphinha’s individual quality, Marsch also needs to find a way to ensure greater attacking potency next season. With Rodrigo dropping deep in build-up phases and Dan James more of a nimble runner than target man, crosses into the box have been met by a resounding number of opposition players. The entire front four for that matter could be described as smaller, mobile runners who possess great counter-attacking thrust. While that benefits the team in transition and in their high press, it also means they miss a natural focal point up top – like Patrick Bamford – who can bang in the 17 crosses per game they deliver.

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On the positive end of the spectrum, Leeds’ progressive distance carried is only behind that of Brighton and the traditional top six. Marsch has successfully used the evident strength of his team to carry and dribble the ball forward at speed, instilling this quick counter attacking approach through dribbling rather than passing. While it means they don’t have that cutting edge with a player like Bamford to offer something different, it also means they can continue to instill Marsch’s philosophies through a seamless process of all out power.

Concluding Thoughts

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Despite his flaws, Marsch has created a new-found belief at Elland Road towards the end of the season. He may have only just salvaged their place in the Premier League, but most importantly, he pulled off what he was brought in to achieve. Should they manage to keep hold of the likes of Phillips, Rodrigo and Raphinha, there is an evident amount of talent in the squad to continue Marsch’s philosophies and keep Leeds in the Premier League. Brenden Aaronson’s proposed arrival would also signify a strong determination to bring the club back to its famed status, and certainly fit the billing of what the American has implemented so far.

Nevertheless, 2021/22 will be a year to forget for Leeds fans. Marsch has much to sort out in the summer in both the market and on the training pitch, and needs to act quick in securing the long-term futures of his stars. If the summer fails to pan out as planned, Leeds United could easily be in for another tumultuous 2022-23 campaign. Simultaneously, in the meantime, both the fans and players can be optimistic with Marsch at the helm, having pulled off a remarkable final day securement of Premier League football next season.


So there it is! Our tactical analysis of Jesse Marsch’s Leeds United in 2021-22. Be sure to check out more work by Charlie Ellis, and follow on social media @mastermindsite to never miss an update. Thanks for reading and see you soon!

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