Pre-season, 2016. New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch has arranged a training camp in Tucson, Arizona, for both his own squad and the club’s second team. Rather than separate the two groups and focus his attention of the first-teamers, Marsch brings everyone together, delivering a training session for 45 players of varied ages and experience levels.
On the sideline, Marsch pauses mid-session. Wearing a contented smile, he turns to a colleague. “This,” he says, “I love.”
Six years on, Marsch is applying the same theories of togetherness and holism in his role as Leeds United manager that he refined in New York, with stops in between – with mixed results – in Austria and Germany.
It will come as little surprise to those who have worked with him, then, to learn that, for example, at a recent press conference Marsch chose to discuss the exam results of youth-team midfielder Archie Gray, and how he’d encouraged the teen to pursue further education.
“He gets everyone on the same page – the staff, the players, the guys that are taking care of the pitches, the people cleaning the facilities,” says former Leeds winger Mike Grella, who played under Marsch with the Red Bulls. “Everyone involved with the club, he’ll spend time with them, get their take, get everyone fighting to win things together. That’s what he does best: he gets the best out of people.”
And, for the most part, it’s working.
Marsch was appointed in January to replace Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds, in just their second season back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence, were in danger of relegation. He immediately moved away from the man-marking style Bielsa had introduced and implemented a 4-2-2-2 shape used widely throughout the Red Bull clubs – which later evolved into a narrow 4-2-3-1 – and intense pressing off-ball.
Leeds improved enough to avoid the drop. This season, after a summer transfer window in which additions were made to suit his style, and with a full pre-season to work with the squad, Marsch will feel August’s 3-0 demolition of Chelsea at Elland Road was the full implementation of his style: relentless pressing and a compact, narrow attack.
Poor results since – a draw at home to Everton sandwiched between defeats away to Brighton and Brentford – evidence the remaining room for improvement. But if Marsch needed further buy-in – internally or externally – the Chelsea game was the perfect illustration of what is possible with his methods and Leeds’ carefully assembled collection of players.
Still, not everyone is convinced.
It isn’t just the spectre of an adored departing manager with which Marsch has had to contend but also the stigma against American coaches when they cross the Atlantic.
Upon accepting the Leeds job, Marsch sought the counsel of his former Princeton University and DC United coach Bob Bradley, the first American to manage in the Premier League. Bradley’s appointment at Swansea City was publicly condemned by the club’s supporters’ trust and he was routinely mocked for his use of American soccer vernacular. He was sacked after just 85 days.
Whatever wisdom he gleaned from Bradley has not prevented Marsch and his mannerisms from offending. His theatrical complaining to match officials in the 5-2 loss to Brentford, for example, earned him a red card and no shortage of criticism online and in print.
But the people Marsch most needed to win over, the Leeds players, have largely been impressed by the American. Those who played under Bielsa admired the idiosyncratic Argentinian, but he was more distant, less personable, than the new boss. Players have privately spoken of Marsch, his approach and tactical acumen, in complimentary tones.
“He’s so personable and he’s so positive as a man,” says David Longwell, a first-team coach with Shrewsbury Town who worked with Marsch when he was NYRB’s academy manager. “He’s just a leader. Every organization can talk about culture, but at Red Bulls the culture came from Jesse. He drove the culture.
“When you’re around him, you want to do well for him, you want to work hard for him. That’s players and staff.”
“He has a great sense of when to make it business and when to make it about personal relationships,” adds San Jose Earthquakes technical director John Wolyniec, who was previously the coach of New York Red Bulls II. “He was always excited to bring players in and, when most coaches would show clips [of games], he’d show pictures of their family.”
Leeds had a tenuous American connection before Marsch arrived: winger Jack Harrison, though born in Stoke-on-Trent, is a product of the US soccer system. He left Manchester United’s academy at 14 to attend Berkshire School in Massachusetts; he then spent two years with Manhattan SC and played college football for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, before signing with Manchester City sister club New York City FC.
But the summer arrivals of Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams have served to bolster a transatlantic identity within the West Yorkshire side.
Marsch has worked with both players before: Aaronson at Red Bull Salzburg, from whom Leeds bought the 21-year-old for $28.8m (£24.7m); and Adams, who was signed from RB Leipzig for $23.1m (£20m), as a youngster in New York.
Aaronson impressed hugely in the Chelsea victory. His goal, for which he harried Blues keeper Edouard Mendy into a costly error, was indicative the attacking midfielder’s bustling, high-octane playing style.
And just as Marsch is tasked with filling the hefty void left by Bielsa, Adams has stepped into the deep-midfield role previously occupied by Leeds native Kalvin Phillips, who was sold to Manchester City this summer for $51.9m (£45m).
Those who have worked with Adams are sure the 23-year-old will not be overawed by the prospect of replacing Phillips, nor of the physical rigors of the Premier League.
“Toughness is probably his biggest thing,” Grella says of his former NYRB team-mate. “And it’s real toughness. You look at him and he’s not very big, he’s not very imposing. But the toughness is within – his attitude, his ferociousness, his ability to cover so much ground, his ability to be a good team-mate.
“He got into a little scrap with one of the senior players and held his own. He actually kind of beat him up a little bit. Even though he was just as kid, to draw a line and physically stand up for yourself, it was impressive. From that day, we were like, ‘Yeah, this kid’s legit.’
“He epitomizes everything Jesse wants to do: from the way he wants to play to his mentality, character, all that. Tyler Adams is the perfect fit for what Jesse wants.”
That Aaronson and Adams are thriving in tandem for Leeds in the Premier League is to the great advantage of the United States ahead of the World Cup this winter.
And while the American duo have proven they have the technical quality to succeed at the highest level, it is their intensity and commitment that has most impressed fans and Marsch alike.
In New York, the manager was renowned for arriving early at the club’s training ground, clocking in daily before 7am, and he even wheeled an exercise bike into his office so he could combine a physical workout with his technical planning. He has spoken of a desire to learn about Yorkshire and wanting his Leeds side to reflect the hard-working ethos of the county’s people.
“The one thing Leeds fans will always support and always fall in love with is your work ethic,” says Grella. “No one’s got a better work ethic than Jesse, Tyler and Aaronson. So as long as they keep that up they’ll always have the respect and the hearts of the Leeds fans.”
But Marsch know he will never please all the people all of the time. He is instead focused on continuing to mould Leeds and their new transatlantic core in his image.
“There is probably still a lot of doubt in me,” he said the day after his side hammered Chelsea at Elland Road. “It’s OK. It’s normal. There are going to be people that like me and people that hate me.
“I just want the team to play with love, passion and belief.”
The Guardian Sport