This game was appropriate to the misty freeze of Elland Road and its attendees’ tired Sunday afternoon brains. Across the Premier League this weekend there were five draws, three of them goalless, as if after what Jesse Marsch says about how, “There is tactics, and playing styles, but ultimately strategies”, there is also the fact it was bloody cold, and maybe that’s what determines results.
I’m not sure a 4-3 (or 3-4) goalfest would have fit the mood in Beeston, and many fans have been pleading for that sort of thing to stop, so to grapple Brentford down to nil — they of the five goals against us back in September — was its own kind of pleasure. This was, in most ways, a normal match. Nothing to be angry about, just low key frustration. Nothing to get excited about, just low key frustration. A draw is better than losing, a point is better than none. A clean sheet is a nice thing to have, if we feel like the audacious pile of talent at the other end can’t finish too many games without scoring. They did here, but, well. Georginio Rutter didn’t come on, did he? “Soon,” said Marsch afterwards, “we’ll really be able to have some fun with the whole group.” Sounds good!
This match wasn’t about fun, it was about Max Wöber. Wöber was bought from (fake) Salzburg the other week for about £11m, a rough modern equivalent to the bit over one million Leeds paid to buy former (real) Salzburg defender Martin Hiden, from Rapid Vienna, in February 1998. Like Wöber, Hiden was expected to be a left-back, but proved to be useful anywhere in defence. And like Wöber, he was simply a good player we were soon glad to have.
Putting the whole Brentford performance on Wöber might be a lot, but he was the big difference in the line-up and an obvious raising of the bar at the back. There were a couple of impressive tackles, either crunching or important, but his quiet authority was more impressive than those. Like one time when Leeds were scrambling around in Brentford’s penalty area trying to force a goal through a forest of legs and the ball was hacked clear, Wöber was in the right place in the centre circle to bring it under control. And that didn’t only happen one time. Anticipating the game and getting into position look like Wöber’s natural habits, and given United’s habit of blundering into dangerous situations and staying there, he could become an important presence. Think where Leeds could be in the table if we didn’t concede stupid goals all the time. We’d have beaten Aston Villa last week, for a start.
Jesse Marsch is convinced this is all part of a larger trend, in which the players are finally matching the idea of how he wants to play with the momentum needed to believe in it. This was behind his lunatic thought experiment in midweek, about how he wouldn’t have minded going down to the Championship after all, because it would have been easier to win games there and build the confidence needed to install his playing ideas. Marsch is convinced that the only problem the Leeds players have is believing in what he wants them to do, and that the only way to build that belief is by winning. I guess he’s got to coach them to win first, though, and I guess that would be — and has been for him — easier anywhere else but the Premier League.
Marsch has been telling on himself with this stuff lately. The impact of Wöber is a good example. He and Robin Koch, he said, “growing up in either Germany or Austria, have had really good formation in terms of understanding tactical responsibilities and nuances … I knew that about Max before he came, that he’s special that way, very intelligent, very clear with exactly what his role is.” He says that Rutter, too, “was already very up to speed and understands most of” his playing model. In Wöber, at least, we can already see the understanding at work. But what does that say for Marsch’s last ten months of work at Leeds, given that when he’s asked why performances have taken so long to click, he has replied, “I’ve been asking myself the same question”? After the Brentford draw, talking about bringing Wöber into defence, he said, “When you’re in this business, you know what you’re looking at. And for me, for ten months, it’s been about trying to get the group so that we’re really starting to push, real momentum, to feel like on the inside there’s clarity and belief and confidence and understanding.” Maybe it would have been easier just to buy Max Wöber in the first place, and cut out the ten months spent trying and failing — through a pre-season, the pause for the Queen’s death, and the World Cup break — to get the players to achieve full Marsch clarity.
However it’s coming, that clarity will be just in time, because this is the halfway point of the season. Leeds need the players to do better against the teams they’ve already played, so if the improvements against Aston Villa and Brentford can be turned into wins, the rest of the season should turn out okay. The fans also need the gap between Marsch’s upbeat rhetoric and the team’s dismal results to close, to hear less from him about how the football is good, we just don’t understand it. “I know that the fans aren’t always certain what we’re doing,” he said after beating Cardiff, “[but] there’s a lot of nuances to what we’re trying to do.” I may not be a football coach, but I watched enough of Leeds United 2011-2018 to know what rubbish football looks like. But the glitter from all this season’s damp granite has been a sign of hidden gold, apparently.
What “complete performances” like this draw with Brentford and the defeat to Villa actually reveal is the futility at the heart of Marsch’s project. Yes, Leeds are executing his ideas better, but they’re getting better at doing something that will never be good enough. With Wöber in charge at the back, Leeds controlled the game against Brentford and attacked, constantly, without panic or worry, until the last ten minutes when worrying about the draw got them panicking about losing. That worry came because during those long periods of control they created, constantly, next to nothing, because the ball was constantly funnelled into the most congested part of the pitch, in front of Brentford’s penalty area, where Leeds hoped either attacking genius or defensive mistakes would create a chance.
This is the grand mistake of what Marsch is trying to do. He has said a few times that he didn’t realise, before taking the job, how good mid-table Premier League teams are. He gives the example of watching videos of Leicester — his first opponent — and being surprised by the quality of the players throughout the team, the tangible standard of the coaching. And yet he is relying on those high quality Premier League defenders making mistakes under pressure to give Leeds a chance as they hammer away at the edge of the box, or for Leeds’ attackers to have the ability to play precise through passes in between elite centre-backs for the strikers to finish past international class goalkeepers. Getting through the defences of even the worst Premier League teams is not going to be as easy as when Erling Haaland used to romp onto mistakes in the Austrian Bundesliga, and discovering this from his Leicester videos seems to have set Marsch back at the start. Take Everton, whose back three includes a Colombian international regular and two centre-backs with England caps, in front of England’s first choice international goalkeeper. They’re 19th. There are quality players right down to the bottom of the Premier League, and teams need more wit to score through them than Leeds are showing. And a lot of Premier League teams have that attacking wit, which is why Everton are in so much trouble, while Leeds only scored one against them this season and Brighton scored four.
Marsch’s response to all this has been to stress bravery as a substitute for quality, as if Brenden Aaronson being brave enough to ping through balls off his teammates’ heels is going to work out if he just believes. The board’s response to this, after ten months of it, has been about increasing the quality available to Marsch. Wilf Gnonto, although he was kept quiet by Brentford, has shown the impact a very good player can have. The fee for Rutter, and the reports/hype, suggest he could have a new level of ability to unlock what Leeds couldn’t against Brentford. From the doctor’s room Pat Bamford is back, apparently for real this time. Luis Sinisterra and Crysencio Summerville have had lovely purple patches and are coming back to fitness. This will all take pressure off Rodrigo, Jackie Harrison, Aaronson.
Marsch calls these his “weapons”. With Wöber a sign of new strength at the back, that battery of weapons should have enough to shoot Leeds to safety, however they’re asked to play. But what comes after that? With them all crammed into twenty square yards of grass, it’s hard to see a path to a brighter future. On the other hand, it’s easy to see all United’s paths leading to new owners taking over in summer, hiring a new coach for next season, and trying new ideas that won’t need ten months or an imaginary relegation to get the best from a faulty but talented squad. We’re stuck hoping that what we’re seeing now is Jesse Marsch getting his act together, after a long spell of development and dress rehearsal, while the Premier League show has been going on around him. He’d better take the stage and perform pretty damn soon if he wants us to see what more he’s got, and what we’re all missing, before he’s gone. ⬢