The impossible plan

Leeds United 0-3 Chelsea: The smartest guys

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Raphinha, Phillips and Harrison having a debate, and Jesse Marsch with his head in his hands having a crisis

This one starts with the team bus arriving on Lowfields Road, with a police escort, barriers erected to keep the crowds back, players pulling in for the big tough challenge of fighting to keep Leeds United in the Premier League. I wonder how the players felt on that bus, looking out at the empty street, hearing a handful of bemused Leeds fans clapping. What if you organised a welcome party and nobody came?

People have since said on Twitter they were contacted by people at Leeds United, encouraging them to mobilise social media and stir up a big atmosphere for when the bus was ‘rumoured to be’ turning up at 5.30pm. The basic failings of this are obvious. It’s Wednesday, most people are working until near that time. It’s Leeds, where getting to the ground is difficult due to transport and pointless two hours before kick-off because there’s even less to do round there since the Pavilion was sold out to corporate guests. It’s Leeds United, who draw a great deal of support from outside the city, who are not going to be there for half-past-five. And these are Leeds United fans, who proved as usual from kick-off of the actual game until past the final whistle, much louder and longer than the team deserved, they do not need or like telling how to support their club.

The obvious inspiration for this was Everton, who got the pyros out for their team bus the other week. But Goodison Park is not Elland Road, Everton fans are not Leeds fans. Goodison Park, in fact, has been ‘toxic’ half this season, with banners against the board at home matches, fans organising walkouts (in the 27th minute, to highlight 27 years without a trophy, the least of their worries). At Carrow Road, an Everton fan sprinted across the pitch apparently intending to attack Rafa Benitez. If ever a fanbase needed to come together and show its support, it’s at Everton this season. Leeds? That one fan yelled at Victor Orta that one time. Elland Road has not been the problem — it’s the one thing that, undeniably, has worked properly. Until, that is, people at the club started interfering this week, trying to organise a party nobody wanted, with the result that, when nobody went, it looked like the fans didn’t care.

The board thinking they know better has been a theme of its decision making since they arrived. It only took a few months of ownership for them to roll out a new club badge, supposedly to define ‘the next 100 years’. Within ten minutes of announcing to the world that they knew better than actual branding and design agencies — some of the best of which then offered their services for free but were ignored — our amateur graphic designers had made themselves, and our club, a worldwide joke.

And as game follows game now, it’s harder and harder to imagine who, watching Marcelo Bielsa’s team even as it struggled this season, could flick through a dossier about Jesse Marsch and think he could make things better. The actual match report section of this post can be summed up as, imagine the Arsenal game, with an early goal and an early red card, but then worse because it didn’t have the second half fightback and the players, somehow, looked even more inept. Twenty minutes in, during the phase when Marsch said later he thought, “we were getting after them and the game was there for us” (at 0-1 down to the European champions), Kalvin Phillips crashed into the back of Dan James off the ball, as if neither of them knew which way they were supposed to be running. Raphinha wasn’t forced to right wing-back by circumstances in this match, Marsch started him there out of choice. Raphinha and Phillips stood and watched Christian Pulisic score Chelsea’s second, because Leeds have gone from zealous man-marking to no man marking any man; then after Diego Llorente, not the first and not the last chasing his own tail trying to find a pass, gave the ball to Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku had a great laugh putting defenders on their backsides to make it 3-0.

‘Our predicament,’ wrote Angus Kinnear in his programme notes, ‘has forced us to temper our offensive ambitions.’ Yes. Five shots on target from 24 efforts in the last four games, since the post-Watford training ‘n’ chill break, and one goal. Kinnear also referred to ‘the more pragmatic defensive approach that has been quickly embraced’. Nine goals conceded in those four games, 25 shots on target from 72 efforts against us. (Crystal Palace, drawing 0-0 with us, had more shots at goal (17) than Spurs did (15) when the latter beat us 4-0.)

‘We all knew,’ Kinnear went on, ‘the full tactical transition was impossible to complete in just twelve games.’ But despite knowing it was impossible they decided — in Kinnear’s earlier phrase, justifying sacking Bielsa, ‘to accelerate the coaching transition’ anyway because… because what? Because YOLO?

As Angus Kinnear has brought up the subject of the ‘coaching transition’, I think I can too, for a couple of paragraphs. Why do I think Marcelo Bielsa would have done better than this mess, despite getting us into it in the first place? As briefly as I can, it’s because given all he’s done in top level football, whether the Copa Libertadores, the Copa America, the World Cup, the Olympics, La Liga, Ligue 1, Europa League, the Championship, the Premier League, I can’t think of a situation he hasn’t faced before, and Leeds United desperately need someone who knows what they’re doing. He knew, too, our players’ abilities and characters, whereas Marsch was this week frantically watching videos to find out how Jamie Shackleton plays at right-back, before picking Raphinha there. Even if, in the end, this season didn’t work with Bielsa, at least he would have known what things to try, and wouldn’t have been trying to learn on the job when there isn’t time.

I was making this point the other week, about how Leeds could have decided to let a world class coach use all his knowledge and experience to recover the situation, to help players he knows intimately and has got astounding performances from before get back to doing what they already know how to do successfully; but decided instead to give a coach who is a novice at this level little time and no resources of his own the challenge of teaching the team something new. I thought the second way sounded more difficult than the first. Now Angus Kinnear is saying the second way was impossible. And he’s the one who decided to try it.

The only logic must be that even if the ‘full tactical transition was impossible’, some sort of half transition would be close enough. But I’m still left struggling to understand someone thinking that half of what Marsch could do would be better than what Bielsa might. Owning and running a football club must inflate egos and rot brains. Buying a club gives people the power to sack better qualified people because, in essence, you paid money for that right. It gives you the power to be a graphic designer and a kit designer too, to choreograph fans and imagine, somehow, it was your brainwork that brought you all this Premier League largesse. Failure is relative in football: Manchester City’s owners will be embarrassed their sportswashing still hasn’t won the Champions League, Liverpool’s that they’ve only won one Premier League in this golden era and could be missing out again. But those clubs are clinging to Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp as hard as they can, because they know any new hire is likely to be a downgrade. They realise the path to success doesn’t start with sacking the guy who knows more about football than anyone else in the building.

I wrote this when he was sacked, and it feels relevant again now: Marcelo Bielsa has been proven right again and again. Who else at Leeds United can say the same?

As for Jesse Marsch himself, his comments about using motivational quotes by Gandhi and Mother Teresa made worldwide headlines this week — Reuters news agency picked them up and then they were everywhere — but that’s the least objectionable part of what he’s been saying. Week after week he has stressed clarity, being clear on the pitch, having clear plans, playing with clarity, and week after week players are looking in vain for a teammate to pass to, running into each other, utterly bemused about what they’re supposed to be doing and demoralised by their own confusion. We heard too, after his argument with the referee in the Manchester City game, about “human behaviour 101 … I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they pick up a yellow in the next play”; I don’t think it’s a coincidence, since he said that out loud, that referee Anthony Taylor gave us absolutely nothing in the game against Chelsea, Phillips pleading with the ref as he was brought down yet again and no card was shown. Hidden in his Sky Sports interview at the weekend, beneath the talk about using Academy players to compete for European football in three years, was this about how he preferred the challenge of managing in Austria, Germany and England, to this alternative: “I could have comfortably stayed in the US and had a very successful career, and probably coached the national team. But that’s not what I wanted.” That’s probably for the best, now.

Marsch is right to be highlighting that we couldn’t expect much from the games against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea this week, a tough quirk of the fixture list. But it was rearranged fixtures that gave Marcelo Bielsa Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs in one week, and he paid for that. Right now, Marsch is paying for his timid match-plan away at Palace, where a good point is looking worse and worse every week; and results aside, in the three games since, he has absolutely failed to keep damage down, morale up, or players on the pitch.

Delusion is running through Leeds like a stick of rock, me included, for thinking relegation wasn’t happening this season. None of it feels real, even down to the crowd, singing louder and louder with each goal against us. I feel like I’m watching myself fall down a well in a dream. The absurd thing is that Leeds United can still stay in the Premier League and I still think they might. The ball is round, and it can do many strange things, as I believe Jimmy Hasselbaink once said. But if Leeds are to get the results against Brighton and Brentford that could keep them in the Premier League, it looks like they’ll have to win them with a combination of brute force, luck and hope. It’s football, so that stuff can be enough. But it’s not exactly a plan. ⬢

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