Jesse Marsch often insists he shouldn’t be here, that it was beyond dreaming about when he was a kid, that it was a one in a million chance that he should be coaching football in Europe. Managing a Premier League team at Anfield is an extension of that world he dreamed of, growing up watching Serie A in Wisconson, that felt beyond dreams. We might wonder if he’d been kept in post for this weekend’s game to make his childhood dreams come true if he hadn’t already been to Anfield in the Champions League, a Red Bull (doesn’t matter which) game that became famous for footage of his half-time speech. “This is nicht ein fucking freundschaftsspiel,” he yelled at the players, ‘This is not a fucking friendly’. This seemed necessary because, as the documentary it was taken from showed, he’d spent the previous day showing his players around Liverpool and Anfield like tourists as if they were indeed there for a fucking friendly. There was no chance of that mistake this time. Arriving at Anfield, Marsch looked like he didn’t have a friend in the place.
Except for his bosses. Rather than giving him a chance, it’s more likely that Marsch was still in his job when the game started on Saturday night because the Leeds board really believes he can do what they thought he could when they hired him. He wasn’t at Anfield to satisfy his dreams, and it wasn’t out of spite, despite Andrea Radrizzani’s post-match tweet having its usual air of putting Leeds fans straight. It was genuine trust. If Leeds do end up in the Championship next season, i.e. hell, the road there will have been paved with good intentions. Such faith is a virtue, the willingness to provide Marsch with new tools to fix his problems is to be lauded. It’s hard to take from a board that nearly gave the same backing to Paul Heckingbottom’s plan to rebuild the squad around Andy Yiadom, and that gave a powerful thumbs down to all Marcelo Bielsa could have built from a platform of 9th in the Premier League. But Marsch is here and so Marsch benefits from their present season of backbone.
Maybe it’s that one chance in a million they’ve bought into. Jesse Marsch is Wisconsin born, with a Germanic name common to many who travelled from Europe to believe in all the 19th Century American Midwest promised. When he talks about his one in a million shot to Premier League coaching, he’s talking about the American dream, that anyone from any Midwest town can grow up to be president one day, or a movie star one day, because if they just believe in themselves enough then nothing and nobody can stand in their way. All the structural trimmings Marsch said were changing this week — new staff, new psychologists, maybe new psychology — are all irrelevant to the American myth of dragging yourself up by your bootstraps, that if you don’t succeed, that’s on you. Marsch’s meshing of the ideal of personal achievement with the team ethic football requires is where his references to ‘fine young men’ come from. At Red Bull he gave individual players targets for things they had to show in games, and would award them ‘Attitude Points’ based on things like number of crosses blocked or number of aerial duels won, or take points away for being caught offside if that was their bad habit. So you had eleven players out there trying to accrue individual high scores, but meanwhile, Jesse, the team? Well, that was the point. “In the end,” he says, “we found that if we met our Attitude Point goals, then our winning percentage was higher.” If it’s full of fine young men, determined individuals pursuing their personal dreams, surely that team of the brightest and best can’t fail to succeed, right? It’s the American dream, turned up to eleven. It’s very seductive. It’s easy to want to believe in that.
The board have been convinced, but I wonder how credulous they are with their chosen one. Marsch once said that his time at Princeton taught him, the son of a tractor factory worker, how to speak to rich people. The team and the fans can be a tougher sell. “Yeah, Mother Teresa,” Marsch said, after the game, when asked about how some things he’d said had put him under pressure. He tried a new tack last week. Last season his solution to stress was good cheer, relaxation and, yes, Mother Teresa and Gandhi. This time his solution to stress was anger. His pre-Liverpool press conference was his, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more’ moment, and at Anfield after Liverpool’s equaliser he was visibly furious with his players, glowering at them from the sidelines. He said last season he wanted to see Jackie Harrison playing like a son of a bitch. Here he looked on the verge of phoning Jackie’s mother up and calling her one.
Anger is an energy, and maybe that’s what summoned United’s opening gift from Joe Gomez to Rodrigo. Actually, Liverpool have been playing like this all season, so his blind pass back in the general direction of where goalkeeper Allison had once been shouldn’t have been a surprise. Allison was the least caught out, as both Rodrigo and the covering Virgil Van Dijk stared at that stray pass as if unable to process it; watching the replay, there’s a moment to wonder if they will both just stand and look at it forever, neither making a move. When the optical illusion resolved itself Rodrigo reacted first, burying the ball into the empty net, then flinging himself to the floor and rolling around in delight.
Liverpool’s equaliser, ten minutes later, was typical of Leeds’ inability to deal with set-pieces and their second phases. Perhaps Illan Meslier should have got a stronger punch or even catch on Trent Alexander-Arnold’s return of a cleared corner, so it wouldn’t have gone to Andy Robertson to try again from the other side and give Mo Salah a goal. But maybe Leeds should have tried to stop those crosses in the first place, instead of letting two of the best crossers in the league swing attempts across the penalty area all night with no pressure. Blocked crosses equal Attitude Points, but not in this match, apparently.
It was odd, because those second phase crosses were coming from the only place where Liverpool didn’t have Leeds breathing down their necks. One Beeston fear has lately been how Leeds still have many of the ‘Super League Six’ and their ilk to play. Perhaps the problem is we haven’t been playing them enough. Tyler Adams, back after injury, harassed everybody in midfield, with a good dose for the attackers and defenders too, and for Leeds to do well we need him to never miss another game. Brenden Aaronson was the forward thinking version of Adams, upsetting Liverpool with tricks on top of tackles, hitting the bar with a brilliant volley in the first half from Rasmus Kristensen’s cross. Harrison was then put through on Allison, who saved, in a hot spell when Leeds could have retaken the lead. The harder Leeds worked, the easier Liverpool made it for them, not waiting to be tackled before giving the ball to white shirts. And when Leeds broke, they had all the space to attack that Leicester or Fulham refused to give up, huge expanses of grass to play forward into. Leeds still opted for the fastest route to the penalty spot, assuming Rodrigo didn’t give the ball away en route, but it made sense here because Van Dijk was playing as if he could feel his unbeaten at Anfield record crumbling, and he was generally there alone.
Liverpool recovered something of themselves in the second half, although not much. The night threatened to become a brave showcase of Leeds’ same old problems, maybe with the benefit of a hard won point, but it had a new element because it was never without a Peacocks’ chance. But about that chance — Pat Bamford came on for Rodrigo and was presented with a golden opportunity to score, and he couldn’t even trap the pass, let alone take the shot. It was the argument about a new striker, right there, yet again. It’s this stuff Leeds need to leave behind, either by shopping in January, promoting from within, or convincing Bamford to believe in his right foot again. Whichever works faster.
At the other end, absolutely confident in every inch of his long limbs, was Illan Meslier. Not the American dream but the French, liberté, égalité, fraternité, the little brother beanstalk grown tall and brave, the teammate you can believe in. If nothing else, Leeds were coming away from Anfield with a new £100m valuation on their 22-year-old goalkeeper. He made nine saves, some routine, some certainly not, all of them necessary to keep Leeds in the game because, well, the shady side of this match is that Leeds still gave Liverpool some big and dopey chances to win it. But then, goalkeepers exist for a reason and this is it. They’re the individuals in a team sport, the only ones allowed to use their hands and wear their own clothes, but a performance like this can define a team. It can also keep the team’s other outside influence, its manager, in a job, although if it had been only these saves and a 1-1 draw at full-time, Jesse Marsch might still have been just clinging.
Enter Wilf Gnonto, and step forward Crysencio Summerville, to benefit from Leeds never giving up on their few chances to get out from under the Liverpool pressure and attack. There was stoppage time poetry in the way eighteen-year-old debutant Gnonto headed the ball over and around 36-year-old James Milner of Leeds, and stubborn determination in the way he poked a cross into the penalty area despite attention from two defenders. Don’t worry about Bamford’s first touch, or him and Summerville nearly crashing into each other, or the shinner? toe-poke? finish from Summerville; his touch to calm things down and put himself through on Allison was the important part. And the joyful part was the young winger, a day before his 21st birthday, a week after his first Leeds goal, having his personal Alan Smith 1998 moment at Anfield, sprinting past the ecstatic Leeds fans with his shirt in the air.
Marsch looked a little stunned at the end. “Come on, men!” he’d been shouting in the closing stages, “Come on, men!” When he shook hands with Jurgen Klopp at full-time he didn’t look him in the eye, he seemed to be looking at a ghost instead. Then came Tyler Adams, then came Marc Roca, then came Rasmus Kristensen, the hugs and the shouting, and it was like someone uncorked a magnum of testosterone to revive Jesse so he could enjoy his triumph.
“I think we should have never been in a situation,” said Marsch after the game, “because I think we’ve been playing well and just not getting points … It’s been painful for all of us.” If you’re flinching slightly at the premature use of the past tense for United’s ‘situation’ and ‘pain’, he did also mention that this win has to become something more against Bournemouth. It does, or else the situation and the pain will continue. Then Wolves in the cup, then Spurs before the World Cup break, which the club have been recalibrating as less a victory tour of the USA than a chance to fix whatever didn’t occur to them or wasn’t pulled off over summer. What will this entail, given what wasn’t done already? If the new plan is to change everything but keep the coach, how far will ‘everything’ extend, and how will this board now give him what he needs to improve his odds from a one in a million chance every week?
That’s all for next weekend and after. This was about a coach with a one in a million shot of being here, with a one in a million shot of staying here, pulling off a one in a million shot that could keep him here. And, in that sense, we actually can’t isolate this game from what has happened so far, and what might be ahead. Leeds had to lose to Leicester and Fulham for this to mean so much, so it’s not unfair to say this game now needs the Bournemouth fixture for a partner. In The Great Gatsby, self-invented Midwesterner Jay Gatsby clings to his dream of the future even as it’s eluding him, believing still that it’s ‘no matter — tomorrow, we will run faster’. On nights like this, like on Gatsby’s ‘blue lawn’, Jesse Marsch’s dreams must feel close enough to grasp. But like Gatsby, Marsch’s dreams are behind him: this is the real thing now, as ecstatic or as disappointing as he can manage. ⬢