The mood in the room was heated, bordering on mutinous. It was January 2015 and the New York Red Bulls had decided to organise a town-hall meeting with season-ticket holders, a decision they were quickly beginning to regret. Ten days earlier the club had sacked their wildly popular coach Mike Petke. Now, on a freezing Friday night in Harrison, New Jersey, about 300 furious Red Bulls fans wanted to know why.
Even though the meeting was supposed to be off the record and no media were invited, footage of the chaotic evening quickly found its way online. The general manager, Marc de Grandpre, and sporting director, Ali Curtis, were mercilessly heckled and interrupted at every turn. “You guys don’t know shit!” one fan shouted at them. Some supporters demanded a refund of their season tickets. Others simply wanted to express their disdain for the decision to sack Petke, a man who had led the Red Bulls to some of the greatest successes in their history, and replace him with an unfancied young coach called Jesse Marsch.
For Marsch, who had been given the job 10 days earlier despite possessing the bare minimum of coaching experience in Major League Soccer, it was the most intimidating introduction imaginable. As insults flew across the room, as livid New Yorkers vowed never to visit the stadium again, Marsch simply sat calmly and listened. Eventually, it was his turn to grasp the microphone and speak, and one fact immediately became arrestingly clear. He was enjoying himself.
“Believe it or not, I love this passion,” Marsch said. “There’s a lot of clubs in this league that would have none of this. I know how privileged I am to be the coach of this team. I’m excited to be here.”
“You have one year,” one fan shouted at him.
“You know what?” Marsch shot back. “I’ll take whatever I can get, quite honestly.” That line drew a few chuckles, and as he carried on speaking Marsch began to win the room over. In a way, these situations are where he has always been in his element: connecting, communicating, working a crowd, articulating his vision. He reassured fans who feared a radical overhaul.
“I’m not here to take things 180 degrees,” he said. “I’m not here to take away the identity of what the club is.” Three years later, when Marsch left having led the club to two league titles and a Concacaf Champions League semi-final, it’s fair to say he had left his mark.
So anyway, that whole business of taking over from a bona fide club legend and winning over a sceptical fanbase: yes, Jesse Marsch has been there and done that. The next 16 days and four games will determine whether Leeds United’s decision to sack the cherished Marcelo Bielsa was the right one.
As Marsch prepares for the biggest fight of his managerial career, it is worth remembering that for all the doubt and ridicule he has attracted in his early weeks in English football, for all the stresses and strains that await him over the next fortnight, you suspect this is exactly how he likes it.
“A lot of whining, a lot of pissing and moaning,” is how his former Chicago Fire teammate Josh Wolff once described Marsch’s playing style. Marsch, a mean and physical defensive midfielder who picked up 57 yellow cards, was the sort of guy who would go looking for a scrap if he didn’t have one to hand. Arguments and fights in the dressing room were commonplace. And so it would be with Marsch the coach, who has built his personal brand on a taste for constructive confrontation.
Three years ago there was a widely shared video of Marsch screaming at his Red Bull Salzburg players during a Champions League game at Anfield. “Es ist nicht ein fucking freundschaftsspiel [It is not a fucking friendly]!” he ranted in an arresting mix of German and English. “This is a fucking Champions League spiel [game]! Wir müssen [we must] get fucking stuck in!” The passion of Marsch’s speech won plenty of admirers, but not everyone grasped its content. He was berating his team for not fouling more Liverpool players. He wanted them to get vindictive.
Already, if you compare his first eight games at Leeds with the 26 under Bielsa this season, you can see elements of this style beginning to permeate. Fouls per game are up from 14 to 17. Possession is down from 54% to 50%. Most importantly, a calamitous defence has been tightened, Bielsa’s man-marking system has been ditched for a zonal defence, and results have begun to come. Since Marsch took over Leeds’s underlying numbers suggest they are a top-half side in defence and attack, even if their 4-0 drubbing at home to Manchester City – the same team who put six goals past Marsch’s ill-fated RB Leipzig side this season – was a reminder of the frailties that remain.
Certainly Marsch’s time at Leipzig feels like an error on the part of both, a team who had gradually been evolving into a possession-based side under Julian Nagelsmann hiring a coach still wedded to the counterattack and counterpress doctrine. Leeds feels like a better fit, a working-class club with a permanent siege mentality and a keen ear for slights. “I like being the underdog,” he said shortly after arriving. “I don’t know why. I identify with it.” The real question, as Leeds face an unenviable fixture list of Arsenal away on Sunday, then Chelsea and Brighton at home and a visit to Brentford on the final day, is whether it will be enough to keep them up. Fourth from bottom, two points ahead of Everton but having played a game more, Leeds’s fate is no longer in their own hands, and so nor is Marsch’s.
For all the criticism of his appointment, Marsch knows better than anyone that it is wins and points that will define him. Inspiring or annoying? Charismatic or self-regarding? A visionary or simply a man who loves the sound of his own voice? “If we lose, you’re going to hate me,” Marsch told those hostile Red Bulls fans seven years ago. “If we win, maybe you’ll learn to put up with me.”
Join Jonathan Liew on 24 May as he leads a panel with Andy Cole and more to discuss the role Black British footballers have played both on and off the pitch. Book a ticket here.
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