The problem with sending Jesse Marsch out of Elland Road is that he takes with him the credibility that, following promotion in 2020, should have ensured Andrea Radrizzani’s ownership was written gratefully into Leeds United history. Choosing a coach to follow Marcelo Bielsa was always going to be the key test of what Radrizzani, Angus Kinnear and Victor Orta brought to Elland Road, and with the grintastic group photo they gathered for with their new man in March, they put everything on the line with him. Now he’s gone, in circumstances that feel familiar.
For Jesse Marsch read Thomas Christiansen, and read a doomed repeat of the strategy Victor Orta and Andrea Radrizzani screamed their way out of in summer 2018. The idea in summer 2017 was that the board wanted a manager who would grow and improve alongside the team, developing young players who would become worth big transfer fees in the process. So they identified Thomas Christiansen for his potential and brought him to the Championship, hoping to ride the wave of his ascent. What they discovered then was that, after fifteen years in the wilderness, Leeds United was not a club that could wait for a young coach to get his act together, or Jay-Roy Grot’s act together, whether that coach was Christiansen or their second attempt, Paul Heckingbottom. It took Orta, shouting his way through dinner at the end of his and Radrizzani’s first season in charge, to make the owner understand that Leeds United Football Club had used all its reserves of patience long before they’d even arrived.
Leeds changed course — Bielsa — yet somehow, after seeing how well that worked, changed back. Jesse Marsch is a young coach who was identified for his potential and brought to the Premier League so he could develop young players while Leeds rode the wave of his ascent, etc etc. But an inexperienced coach with room for improvement, by definition, has flaws that need time to be worked out. And the Premier League trapdoor is an even less forgiving red line than the promotion places in the Championship. The problem with this approach is that it needs a unicorn: a coach who is young with faults that can be solved with time, who is also immediately proficient enough to stay safe in the Premier League. It’s not just a unicorn, it’s a contradiction.
That the board went back to this version of their 2017 plan, after all that happened with Bielsa that was good, makes it hard to think they learned anything from El Loco’s time at Leeds. At Bielsa’s unveiling, Radrizzani talked about wanting the new manager to change the culture of the club. This wasn’t just a coaching role, the owner wanted Leeds to benefit from all of Bielsa’s knowledge and experience. And Leeds did. And as soon as the board had shown Bielsa the door, despite claiming they would continue his ‘legacy’, they went back to how they were doing things before. Radrizzani’s concept of Bielsa’s legacy is naming the training ground after him, attaching a brass nameplate to a door through which Bielsa would recognise nothing of what he built. Was this a rejection of Bielsa’s philosophy, or just a poverty of ideas?
One of the key factors that Angus Kinnear, speaking to The Square Ball last August, put forward about Bielsa’s downfall at Leeds was that the head coach had too much control — ‘dominant … dictatorial … extreme … principled’. That at times it felt like the board were working for Bielsa, unable to influence him. Kinnear’s farewell programme notes included an anecdote about Bielsa wanting a putting green installed for the players, and Kinnear refusing to allow it. (From Instagram, incidentally, Leeds’ players absolutely love golf. Perhaps the coach who installed a games room and relaxation area at Thorp Arch was onto something here.) This seemed a stupefying, petty tale; after saying yes to so much Bielsa wanted, and seeing the results, why draw the line there? My only conclusion was that Kinnear felt like he had to start drawing lines somewhere. Somebody from the board had to start standing up to this coach who wanted, and always got, things his own way. Over less trivial matters, Kinnear sounded much the same: Bielsa didn’t want to sign this player or that player, he wouldn’t change this tactic, he wouldn’t alter this aspect of training. Essentially, the board felt Bielsa was too powerful, and not listening to their ideas. They felt that Leeds United would fail if their input was not taken, and if Bielsa was too ‘principled’ to heed the board, they would have to sack him.
Now we’ve seen Leeds United as owned by Radrizzani both before and after Bielsa was in charge. And we’ve seen that Bielsa’s reign was the only time Leeds United was good. Having Bielsa in control might have bruised egos, and his demands for players and facilities might have startled the bank manager, but Bielsa got results. We heard a lot, after he was sacked, about all the signings Bielsa refused to accept, the tactical alterations he wouldn’t make. We never heard, because Bielsa won’t speak of it, about what plans he did have, what proposals he did put forward. We don’t know what Bielsa wanted to do next, at Leeds. We only know he didn’t want Harry Winks in January, or to take any of the board’s other suggestions. And it looks less and less, as the months have gone by, like he was wrong.
It also feels less and less like coincidence that things went wrong for Bielsa at Leeds after Orta had chosen Marsch as his successor, after Kinnear had decided three years of Bielsa was too much to sustain, after Radrizzani had spoken to Bielsa and got him to agree that the club had to either ‘change the coach or change the players’ and then, in summer 2021, did neither. After a putting green became an indulgence too far. After the point when the board felt Bielsa had been having his way for too long, but before the point when they had enough courage to do anything about it except stop doing as he asked.
Leeds United has been here before. In the 1960s, Don Revie had a close relationship with the chairman who convinced him to take the manager’s job, Harry Reynolds, but after Reynolds stepped down from the board and then died, Elland Road became a lonelier place for Revie. The new board liked the club’s success, but they didn’t like Revie being given all the credit for it. He was their employee, but in public the board just looked like anonymous suits who signed cheques and followed their underling’s orders. Revie was on the verge of leaving several times, and when he finally took the England job, the board wasted no time asserting their own authority. Now it was time for the public to see who Leeds United’s real authors of success were. They hired Brian Clough, and 44 days later when they’d sacked him, they had spent more on transfers in those six weeks than in the entire time Revie was running the club. If all Revie had let them do was write cheques, at least they’d been smaller ones.
I don’t know if Radrizzani, Kinnear and Orta fell into that trap, surrounded by murals of their employee, living in the shadows of his worldwide fame, always being asked about the genius of his methods and never about their own. But after they sacked Bielsa they were alone with their genius to flex, and eleven months later they don’t even have Jesse Marsch to front up for them anymore. We’ve got an answer to what a post-Bielsa Leeds looks like, and it’s a mirror image of the pre-Bielsa Leeds. Thomas Christiansen’s season in charge ended on 4th February, Jesse Marsch’s on the 6th. Radrizzani’s second go at doing things his way has exposed the need for what he had in between (no, not Heckingbottom) — someone else in control, someone commensurate to the task, someone who knows what they’re doing. If he liked what Jesse Marsch was planning to do, that was the problem. What we suspected before Bielsa has been confirmed by the months after him: when Radrizzani, Kinnear and Orta are allowed to be the smartest guys in the room, Leeds United end up in trouble.
The trouble with the boardroom at Leeds now is that we don’t know which guys are calling the shots on the next appointment. What sort of coach comes next, short term or long term? And which side of the ownership will appoint and/or unveil them? The short term of Radrizzani that’s due to end in summer, or the long term of 49ers Enterprises that’s due to start? The complexity of who is in charge worked best when it had a simple answer. ⬢