Ooh, football friend

Marc Roca’s history with Jesse Marsch

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
Marc Roca in a Bayern Munich shirt, with the expression of a man who has just heard the stole the 1975 European Cup

Around the turn of 2021, Marc Roca was enjoying a rare run of league starts for Bayern Munich, earning praise from manager Julian Nagelsmann and prompting the Bundesliga’s official website to publish a profile of the midfielder titled, ‘Who is Bayern Munich’s long-awaited heir to Xabi Alonso and answer to Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets?’ A cynic might suggest the headline writer saw that Roca is a Spanish defensive midfielder and reached for the two most recent examples they could think of. Thankfully, I am not a cynic, I am an impressionable fool, and would like to welcome the new Xabi Alonso to Leeds United.

Roca’s signing is a comforting break from being exclusively linked with Red Bull employees. He might not have the shared history with Jesse Marsch of Brenden Aaronson or Rasmus Kristensen, but Roca has still crossed paths with Jesse. Maybe he made an impression on the man he is going to be hearing a lot more from.

In November 2020 Roca made his Champions League debut, starting in Bayern Munich’s group stage fixture at Red Bull’s Austrian franchise, then under Marsch’s management. It was only Roca’s second start for Bayern — the first was against German amateurs FC Duren in a cup tie — with Joshua Kimmich and Corentin Tolisso both injured. Roca’s transfer from Espanyol meant Bayern could afford to lose Michael Cuisance, who left for Marseille via a botched medical at Elland Road, but Roca was still competing with Kimmich, Tolisso, Leon Goretzka, Javi Martinez and Thomas Muller for a place in midfield. All are decorated internationals, which is why both Cuisance and Roca found game-time hard to come by at Bayern, but managers Hansi Flick and Julian Nagelsmann both praised Roca’s attitude and professionalism, rated by one blog as ‘a far cry away from the likes of the egotistical, step-over merchant Michael Cuisance’.

Watching the game back, Roca looks less like the new Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets and more like a big Lewis Bate. That’s no criticism; it has been suggested Leeds are waiting for Bate to bulk up before he becomes a regular, so having a ready-made version sounds like a good idea. Roca does the type of basic central midfieldery things that made us all realise what Leeds had been missing when Adam Forshaw finally returned from injury: dropping deep to get the ball from the defence, getting a foot in to spoil Salzburg’s attacks, keeping his position to create space for teammates. He’s not the most dynamic or mobile player, but Flick praised his positional awareness for compensating for a lack of pace. He ended the game with the highest passing accuracy of any starting player on the pitch. Most were simple balls to keep possession, but the longer the game went, the more confident he became passing forwards, linking with Bayern’s attack. Salzburg’s pressing often panicked Bayern’s defence, but when Roca eventually got some space to look up in his own half, he created a chance for Robert Lewandowski with a perfectly-weighted long pass straight down the middle of the pitch, like a diagram from Marsch’s Red Bull playbook come to life. He even pulled off a nice step-over — up yours, Micky Croissants!

Bayern beat Marsch’s Salzburg 3-1, but they owed their comfort to some hilariously bad finishing from the hosts. Immediately after Lewandowski messed up Roca’s pass, Salzburg countered, only for Dominik Szoboszlai to spoon the ball impressively high into the empty stand from in front of goal. With Bayern leading 2-0 in the second half, Roca was booked for a second time, stopping another Salzburg counter with a foul. Alongside his passing, maybe Roca being a fine young son of a bitch is what impressed Marsch. Walking off the pitch, Roca stopped between two security guards by the tunnel, slapping the ground with both hands in a strop. Over commentary, it sounded like teacups were being dropped in the background, which makes me wonder if pitchside mics were picking up Roca giving the tunnel some Alioski treatment as he walked off. While Marsch was studying a tactics board with a member of his coaching staff, calculating how to make the most of their numerical advantage, Bayern scored their third.

Marsch features heavily in the coverage. Despite Bayern boss Hansi Flick having won the competition the previous season, the cameras can’t keep off Jesse while he’s encouraging his players, chatting with officials, doing kick-ups during a VAR check. “We need Bayern now,” Marsch said afterwards, relying on Munich to pick up results against Atletico Madrid and Lokomotiv Moscow to give Salzburg a chance of qualifying. “I’ve asked David Alaba to win the next two Champions League matches too. He said they’d try.”

Joining our glimpse into Leeds United’s future was Rasmus Kristensen. Brenden Aaronson was there in spirit; he had agreed to join Salzburg the previous month, but not until Philadelphia’s MLS’ season ended in January 2021. Kristensen was out to save face after scoring an own goal in Salzburg’s 6-2 defeat to Bayern in the reverse fixture. He couldn’t prevent a defeat, but created Salzburg’s consolation with a sweet first-time cross to leave Mergim Berisha with a tap-in. Rasmus left Roca alone, instead subjecting Thomas Muller to two nutmegs, patting the World Cup winner on the back after the first.

Salzburg failed to qualify, losing to Atletico Madrid in their final group match. Roca did his best to give Marsch Bayern’s help, playing in their victory over Lokomotiv Moscow, even staying on the pitch for the full ninety minutes. The heir to Xabi Alonso? The answer to Sergio Busquets? The genetically-enhanced Lewis Bate? Marc Roca can still be whatever he wants. For everyone’s sake, it will be a lot easier if he’s not ‘the replacement for Kalvin Phillips’. ⬢

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