Beat happening

Jesse Marsch and the new beat look

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A photo of Jesse Marsch, emphasising how tired and weary he looks, poor fella

When Howard Wilkinson saw photos of himself on the last day of Sheffield Wednesday’s promotion in 1984, the glorious end of his first season as their manager, he was appalled. He said he looked like he’d escaped from a prison camp, and swore never to let a football season have that effect on him again. Later, Wilkinson founded (and still chairs) the League Managers’ Association, because the players had a welfare union and he thought managers needed one too. Jesse Marsch became an LMA member by taking the job of managing Leeds United, and I’m sure Wilko would be glad to talk him through bringing the league title to Elland Road in 1992 from a supine position of golf in the afternoons and relaxed banter with the press, while his red-faced rival Alex Ferguson looked like his world was falling apart. Ferguson learned from that; Kevin Keegan never learned from him.

Marsch, lately, has worn the same haunted look Wilkinson was horrified to see in himself. We’ve seen it before in Leeds United managers, good people given the good job at Elland Road seen staggering out the mill doors, broken, a few months later. But with Marsch, there’s more to it than Leeds. He hasn’t only had us to deal with, but the entire Premier League machine, and while he did his best to prepare for it, he looks like someone facing a much bigger challenge than he expected, from quarters he didn’t imagine. It brings to mind a story he tells about a trip to observe behind the scenes at Leipzig, early in his coaching career, when he didn’t understand why everyone kept using the German word ‘druck’. He was told it meant ‘pressure’. “Pressure, like pressuring the opponent defensively?” No — “Like pressure in the media, the public. The pressure to win.” Marsch couldn’t see why, ‘external expectations the club couldn’t control’, were such a big factor. He might have got used to the idea since, working in Salzburg and Leipzig, coaching in Champions League and Bundesliga, and thought himself a master of ‘druck’. Now he’s in Leeds, and pressure is not all that has been amped to eleven until the fuse blows, forcing him to reset. So much has gone wrong, and compared to the fresh faced enthusiasm of his arrival, Marsch has been looking beat for weeks.

There were situations Marsch could be ready for, and he was. Ted Lasso and the Bob Bradley history of Premier League soccer coaching were always coming for him, the former because it represents the minimum viable punditry effort, and Marsch was right to get ahead of the subject in his first press conference. He was wrong if he expected that to be the end of it, as he seemed to when complaining over the summer of continuing anti-Americanism. The media did what it was always going to do, reporting his jokes while completely ignoring their message.

Marsch also knew that following Marcelo Bielsa would not be easy, and prepared himself for that too. But even I — an unrepentant Bielsist until the end — winced at the weekend when the Daily Mail and the Telegraph implied that Leeds’ performance at Anfield was a Bielsaball throwback. Marsch put himself into Bielsa’s shadow by taking this job, but he deserves to be seen by his own light for Saturday. But he hasn’t seemed surprised that, as the pressure was increasing in the Leicester and Fulham games, the soundtrack was Marcelo Bielsa’s name, perhaps combining in Marsch’s head with a John Deacon bassline. He might have thought he had this licked by beating Chelsea. Nope.

At least Marsch could prepare for those things he saw coming, but the unexpected has rocked him harder. It wasn’t Marsch who brought up motivational quotes last season, it was Jackie Harrison, approving of the concept in a post-match interview. “He showed a quote from Gandhi before the game about having belief,” said Jackie, the game being Arsenal away, where Leeds were 2-0 down inside ten minutes. But it was Marsch who sent the situation viral by adding Mother Teresa and JFK to the mix, among others, as he ruefully acknowledged at Anfield when asked if some of his comments had put pressure on the team. It was not received how it might have been back in New York. And, on the eve of this season, in his last press conference before kick-off against Wolves, there came a heavy sigh from Marsch when he was asked a question about Kalvin Phillips’ departure and he wanted to answer with reference to how coaching makes him feel like a father figure to players. “I don’t know how much I want to go into this,” said Marsch, as if second-guessing how it would go over with the clickbait sites later if he said what he really felt.

Then there were the touchline histrionics, the “human behaviour 101” that he told referees he was using to influence them (“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they pick up a yellow in the next play”), culminating in Marsch’s red card at Brentford. That incident, and the attention on it, has been an end to all that, Marsch now cutting a much more self-consciously withdrawn figure even in the VAR maelstrom against Arsenal. There, without trying to get into the head of the refs, he was getting decisions his way, and at Anfield he got good refereeing from Michael Oliver without having to say a word. It seems to have dawned on Marsch that ‘human behaviour 101’ is wasted on Premier League officials who, but for a few exceptions, don’t behave like textbook humans. You’re better off keeping your big sweary mouth shut and letting them do what they do.

There’s been more to get used to. Eight games without a win were a shock to a system that Marsch has never tried to coach outside of its incubating RB company infrastructure. Feeling like failing without that safety net is a harsh follow on from Leipzig, where his RB tactics failed in the pinnacle of their own environment. Particularly galling at Leeds are the famous underlying stats. Those numbers can mean what you want them to mean, but an interpretation I’m sure Marsch is aware of has his players leading the league in every metric he wants them to lead in — excelling in all the foundation blocks of his style — adding up, before Saturday, to only winning two games. Leeds have been carrying out Marsch’s instructions to a league-leading level, and the Premier League has been beating them down game after game. Who would not doubt themselves?

Going by the effect on his demeanour, doubt looks like new territory for Jesse Marsch. Former teammate at Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, Jim Curtin, has described “fistfights all the time” in training because Marsch made it so competitive, and says, “When you talk to people about Jesse outside of his teammates, they say ‘I hated him on the field.’ No kidding, because his teams always won!” As a coach, his win percentage in New York was 49.7%, in Salzburg it was 68%. Marsch says sometimes that he’s evolved from the win at all costs mentality of his playing days, more concerned now about player development and personal growth, but people like Curtin won’t buy that — “The biggest compliment I can give is that Jesse Marsch is a winner, he has been from day one, and always will be” — and Marsch will know that he doesn’t get to do the player development part for very long if he doesn’t do the winning. First one goes, then the other. And what is left of Jesse Marsch then?

Marsch looks like someone who has had to think about that lately. And as a result he’s had to change everything, at once. At Anfield, he initially pushed it aside as superstitious, but it has been serious — normal training so thoroughly upturned in the week before the game that, “the problem is now I don’t know what to keep and what to change back.” Marsch had his winning mojo back on Saturday, but you wouldn’t have known from looking at him. He had the face of someone who, after an exhausting week, now has to work out how he got it right, and quickly.

All the above sums up how we got to the Marsch we’re seeing now: one with his wings clipped, his horizons dimmed, his faiths shaken; not the referees’ behaviours changed, but his. But this is not a bad thing. This might not be the moment for the brash, confident Marsch, for whom every job clicked against outside expectations, who flawlessly climbed the RB company ladder, who can justifiably picture himself coaching the USMNT in their 2026 home World Cup. If he’s still going to get there, Marsch might have to go through what other winners have gone through: losing.

Let’s dip into his predecessor’s story for a while. Let’s remember that at Leeds we saw Marcelo Bielsa in excelsis. We did not see, at Leeds, the young Bielsa who raged and refused to leave dugouts in protest at the referee’s mother’s career choices. We didn’t see the young Bielsa who asked his wife how he could feel worse about losing a game than he had about the dangerous ill health of their infant daughter, and wondered how he could carry on in football if it was making him so monstrous. We didn’t see the Bielsa who cloistered himself in a convent to recover from defeat, reading alone in his room for months until he had to leave for fear of losing his own sanity. What expression did Bielsa wear when he was seeking solace by living among the nuns? I feel sure he was as grey and hollow-eyed as Marsch looks now.

We heard a bit about those times. The Bielsa who came to Leeds was the Bielsa who had learned that the euphoria of winning only lasts five minutes, and can never be more than a temporary escape from a permanent lonely abyss. We also got the Bielsa who, contrary to popular belief in his final season that he was too stubborn to change, was in fact relentless in his pursuit of new ideas. Those research projects with his staff, like analysing every set-piece goal at the World Cup, were near-desperate searches for new inspiration; desperate because, despite his striving for fresh inputs, Bielsa always came to the terrible conclusion that the way he was doing things was the best — and it wasn’t working well enough. If that had been arrogance or stubbornness, Bielsa would never have bothered even looking beyond his own methods. It’s more like despair, that from all the years of work, from all the searching, he was getting as close to perfection as he ever could, and was still miles away.

Jesse Marsch does not look at peace with the idea that he does not have all the answers. He looks shellshocked from playing eight great games of football and not winning any of them. He looks personally affronted that he can’t barge around the touchlines haranguing the ref. At the King Power, scene of a post-match huddle in front of the away fans after his very first match — the attention on which gave Marsch the first clue about how hard this was going to be — he disappeared straight down the tunnel after defeat on his second visit, a literal retreat away from the same away end and into his shell. He looks exhausted by having to reconcile himself to not being able to be himself.

Marsch was angry last week. “I’ve never lost — fourteen years a player, thirteen years a coach — and I’ve never lost this much in my career. I’m sick of it.” He was not where he wants to be, in the league table, in the fans’ affections, in the media’s attention, in his job security. But what happened next? He won at Anfield. He won without being able to rely on the old answers, he won by questioning everything, throwing everything from those fourteen playing years and thirteen coaching years into doubt. He won while not feeling like himself, not acting like himself. He tried to mute his post-match celebrations, approaching Jurgen Klopp as if he’d been thrown into a bear cage. The only bit of the old Jesse showing through was the finger-snapping strut down the technical area when Crysencio Summerville scored.

If Marsch has been feeling like nothing has been working, he has not been hiding it very well, but uncertainty could yet be the best thing to ever happen to him. It’s a tiring process, trying to make peace with yourself without knowing who you can be instead, or how to go about finding that out, but embracing the uncertainty can give you the puzzle pieces for solving its problems. Born winners all learn, in the end, that football is not a sport that will reinforce their birthright. When they look most beat is when they can finally start winning. ⬢

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