With 12 matches left to save the club’s Premier League status, Leeds United have opted to pull the trigger on beloved manager Marcelo Bielsa, replacing him with Jesse Marsch. The American, a former coach of RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga, is something of an unknown given he will be experiencing the pressure cooker of Premier League life for the first time.
Americans also have a fairly poor record in charge of Premier League clubs, so Marsch will be attempting to buck that trend as Leeds aim to turn around their extremely poor recent form.
Bielsa’s departure has been met with what has been close to an outpouring of grief from Leeds supporters. So has the club made the right decision in moving on from the veteran Argentine?
Circling the drain
There is no way to dress up the recent losses suffered by Leeds. Their February was a disaster.
First, they drew 3-3 away to Aston Villa despite taking an early lead through Dan James and a 3-0 loss to Everton – the Toffees’ only positive result under Frank Lampard – swiftly followed.
Defensive issues have been a problem all season for Leeds but they were taken apart 4-2 at home by Manchester United before suffering a 6-0 humbling away to a rampant Liverpool.
When Tottenham brushed aside their recent inconsistency in romping to a 4-0 win at Elland Road, the writing was on the wall for an increasingly beleaguered Bielsa, with the official confirmation of his departure from the club following soon after.
Leeds have conceded 60 goals from 26 games this season – a truly remarkable figure that ensures they have the worst defence in the league by a substantial margin. It does not take a mathematician to work out letting in on average over two goals a game is a recipe for relegation.
The way Bielsa’s teams play with ferocious pressing all over the pitch means they are always going to give away chances, but last season they were able to outscore the opposition more often than they have this campaign. This term, their issues have been at both ends of the pitch.
Just 29 goals scored might still be more than Wolves and Brighton have managed so far – and they both sit in the top half of the Premier League – but conceding twice as many goals as have been scored adds up to a relegation battle.
Leeds might still be above the relegation zone right now but with Newcastle United and Burnley both finding form recently, their situation was increasingly perilous. Take the overwhelming love for Bielsa out of the picture and it is completely understandable why he has been sacked as they have lost four games in a row in the league – and by a whopping 17-2 aggregate scoreline.
Context matters, though. Leeds’ goalscoring problems can be explained by the fact the England international Patrick Bamford has been restricted to five starts in the Premier League. Bamford – who hit 17 Premier League goals last term – will be unavailable to Marsch, at least initially, due to a foot problem which follows the ankle and hip injuries that have blighted his season so far.
Kalvin Phillips, who made gigantic strides in his development under Bielsa’s leadership, has not featured at all in 2022 due to injury with key defender Liam Cooper having also been out since last year. Phillips, Cooper and Bamford represent the entire spine of the Leeds United team.
Statistics show that Leeds concede more than three goals per game on average when Cooper and Phillips have been absent this term, compared to 1.3 goals per game when they play. Leeds have collected 1.3 points per game with the duo in the side – more than enough to survive – but that drops to just 0.6 points per game when Phillips and Cooper have been unavailable to play.
Bielsa prefers to operate with a smaller squad, so injuries to key players hit the Leeds squad particularly hard. While it is fair to ask if Bielsa’s demanding fitness regimes and tactics make it more likely injuries happen, it is bad luck for three star players to have missed so much time.
The importance of Phillips in particular to Bielsa’s system cannot be understated. Bielsa’s tactical plan does not work when the man dubbed the Yorkshire Pirlo is not in Leeds’ midfield.
Lack of signings
With Bielsa famously picky over incoming transfers, Leeds made no senior signings during the January transfer window. Newcastle’s spending power has helped them to pull away from the drop zone under Eddie Howe while Everton bought new full-backs, Watford also strengthened their squad and Burnley upgraded their striker by replacing Chris Wood with Wout Weghorst.
Leeds were able to resist strong interest in twin talents Phillips and Raphinha but they saw a reported £20 million bid for RB Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson rejected, meaning they essentially went backwards during January considering the strides made by most of their relegation rivals. Not signing a striker with Bamford still sidelined was a particularly curious decision by the club.
Bielsa is not a manager who wants to make signings for the sake of it, but fresh blood could have given Leeds a vital boost and helped to avoid what became a sad slump in February. The raw emotion from Leeds fans on learning Bielsa’s fate was understandable, but whether or not Marsch is able to save them from the drop will determine whether the sacking was justified.
Principles are everything to Bielsa and, in the end, he paid the price for them with his job.