Managing stress

Nottingham Forest 1-0 Leeds United: This isn’t going very well

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Jesse Marsch leaning on to the pitch in Nottingham, to adjust Georginio Rutter by the shoulder. Rutter is wearing our disco stilton away shirt and a non-committal expression

Clarity. Clarity and stress. They’re two of the words that will haunt us, Jesse Marsch’s ghosts, long after he’s gone. Like Paul Heckingbottom left us ‘Wi’ t’ball, wi’out t’ball’. (Until Marsch gave body to those ethereal breaths and brought them back to life.)

Anyway, I’m not sure how you go about forcing clarity onto another person, and neither it seems is Marsch. But if it’s not clear to the Leeds United board that things are just not working out with Marsch in charge of the football team, then perhaps a thought experiment might help them: imagine the feeling of stress released when he’s no longer the problem here. There. Andrea, Angus, Victor, Paraag and Peter too, just picture the day when he’s gone and I bet you fifty pence each that just the thought of it will lift your shoulders, smooth your brows, lighten your moods. There is one clear way to remove the stress from Leeds United and, after eleven months of trying the other way, it has to be worth a go.

Obviously it won’t solve everything. Sacking the manager might be the easy answer in football, but it always masks other important issues that need solving. Sacking Marcelo Bielsa, for example, did not release the team from its defensive difficulties and catapult the club up the table. But because few of us can see behind the scenes of a football club, few of us know what the other problems are, and as such, we can’t criticise the board for those, and that’s to their advantage. Sacking the manager is a great stress reliever because even if it doesn’t solve all the problems, from outside it looks like it does. Basically, lads, you might get some peace, and by the time fans have worked out about the other stuff, you could be gone.

We can’t see behind the scenes. But we can see what’s on the pitch. And, eleven months into the job, two weeks after Marsch told us that “on the inside our confidence is moving absolutely forward, and for me, I’m at the highest belief I’ve been since I’ve been here”, the football is barely distinguishable from what we saw on that shocking first night at Elland Road against Aston Villa, in the dreary 0-0 away to Crystal Palace, in the nauseating trio of self-defeat against Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea. Three stoppage time wins, a stoppage time draw, and a more ordinary win and draw from Watford and Southampton were enough to keep Leeds up overall, but Joffy Gelhardt plays for Sunderland now. We were promised, in Marsch’s first answer of his first press conference before the first game of this new season, that Leeds would be working “in a little bit more stress-free environment … so that we can now transform ourselves into what we want to be.”

After losing to Nottingham Forest, Marsch was asked how he was going to turn his belief that Leeds can get results into actual results:

“I can see why you frame your question the way you do but if you’re not with us every day, then you don’t understand how we feel. Everyone is aligned and obviously when we don’t get results that puts stress. Then we have to manage stress. Instead of managing development we’re managing stress. Too often since I’ve been here that’s what it has felt like, and then it obviously interrupts any kind of process that you try to create.”

So much for the “little bit more stress-free environment”. So much, too, for Andrea Radrizzani’s summer comment that relegation would be “impossible”. I think, being charitable to him in his second language, he meant something closer to “unimaginable”, but the result is the same. And the result is Illan Meslier attacking a corner in stoppage at time in Nottingham, trying to steal a desperate point from a relegation rival.

The concentration on Marsch’s press conferences is, to an extent, unfair, but it’s built in to the Premier League in which he works. Personally, I would love English football to give journalists the same locker room access as the NFL or MLB, where the press can ask detailed post-match questions to any player willing to answer them. I’m with Antonio Conte when he wonders why directors of football don’t do press conferences about transfers, why physios aren’t asked about injuries. In England, apart from three-and-done bits for TV with the player of the match, it’s managers who are dragged out to speak before and after every game, managers whose words are dissected and criticised, managers who are up against the sack clock week by week because football media is a huge industry and is given nothing else to fill its maw.

But Marsch’s commentary on his own work is different, and I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a coach talking himself out of a job this way before. Since football resumed after the World Cup, and Leeds offered some slightly brighter performances, Marsch has seemed to seize on those as a light at the end of the tunnel — he can’t explain why it’s taken so long to get here, but now we can almost see the sky. But all this did was to emphasise how long this tunnel has been, and how difficult Marsch has found getting from one end to the other, even with a map. Why has it taken ten months to achieve acceptable performances? “That’s a good question and one that I’ve been asking myself,” he said, “and I’ve been trying to urge the players and demand them to play with more clarity and more commitment to the tactical idea of the way we want to play”. Yes, without succeeding. After declaring in August how important a new stress-free environment is to what he’s trying to achieve, what’s the reason being given in February 2023 for the team’s lack of development? He’s “managing stress too often”, and that’s interrupting the “process”.

Just as it’s a Premier League manager’s job to speak constantly and coherently to the press, so it is to manage stress, in the most pressurised football league in the world. Marsch’s assumptions about stress in the Premier League seem as ill-founded as his assumptions about the quality before he got here. “I said this when I first came to the job,” he repeated at the start of January, when asked what had surprised him in England, “I would sit down and watch teams playing — when I first came it was Leicester, then Villa and then Norwich and then Wolves — and it was just every match, I’d be like, ‘Man, they’re good. How are we going to manage this game and manage to move ourselves and to be the team we want to be?'” Eleven months in, he doesn’t have an answer to how he can manage his team to be the best against the middle clubs of the Premier League. Eleven months in, he can’t account for his team not playing with the tactical clarity he believes is important. Eleven months in, he hasn’t found a way to manage the stress of the Premier League. Eleven months in, his confident delivery can’t mask the substance of what even Jesse Marsch is saying about his own work: this isn’t going very well.

The thousand or so words above all came about because Leeds played a match away to Nottingham Forest and, despite Forest looking objectively bad and Leeds putting in a strong first half and augmenting themselves with expensive new signings in the second, nothing happened except Leeds lost. Oh, perhaps if Pat Bamford had buried a cutback from Wilf Gnonto instead of swinging and missing. Perhaps if Luis Sinisterra had kept the ball below the bar when Gnonto, calling for a cross to the back post and getting it, tapped him into a golden chance. Perhaps if Gnonto had scored on a break through the middle, when Keylor Navas saved. But perhaps if we’d had attacking ideas beyond giving the ball to a tiny teenager and hoping he could beat his two markers every time, it wouldn’t have been so easy for Forest to withstand our laborious grind in the second half.

Meanwhile, Brennan Johnson snapped in a volley when he was left unmarked for the second phase of a crossed set-piece, and Sam Surridge nearly scored the same way in the second half. In open play Forest couldn’t get much from pitting Chris Wood against his old pal Liam Cooper and our new mate Max Wöber, but it didn’t matter when Leeds were so disorganised from set plays. Here’s another contradiction, although the blame for this one may be above Marsch’s pay grade. Back at Brentford, on the last afternoon of last season, Marsch said that “we need to focus on the infrastructure and maximise the potential of what we can become every day”, but after that Michael Skubala wasn’t appointed as Under-21s coach until a week before their first match, Chris Armas was wanted in the summer but wouldn’t come, meaning Rene Maric was given a first team coaching job a week before the first Premier League match, then Mark Jackson dipped off to become manager of a fake club, and Leeds went shorthanded for weeks until Armas eventually arrived last week. In moments of stress Marsch’s old pal Franz Schiemer has popped over from Salzburg with his laptop, but pushing remote working so far hasn’t helped a shambolic feel to the staffing that has been reflected in the disarray on the pitch. Whether it’s attacking corners at Aston Villa or defending free-kicks in Nottingham, Leeds do not look like an organised team.

The question about all this is how much we’d miss if they all went away now. Normally the good advice is towards progressive decisions, to try taking a positive step even when times are bad. But I can’t help feeling that the group of players Leeds United had on the pitch at Nottingham would have played better if they were doing literally anything other than what Jesse Marsch was asking them to. His style of play can work, in the sense of getting results if not of entertaining fans, as Southampton proved for several seasons with Ralph Hasenhüttl. But while Ralph worked out how to use the Red Bull playbook to make the Saints respectable enough in the Premier League for him to kick back in his slippers at home, plonking away at Depeche Mode on his piano, Marsch has not been able to crack it at Leeds. He couldn’t at Leipzig, either, a club built by RB for RB-ball.

Maybe the problem is Jesse Marsch. Maybe when he tells us the Premier League is harder than he expected, tells us that he needs to remove the stress from the situation but he can’t, tells us that he can’t improve the players in stressful conditions, tells us that he doesn’t know why its taking so long for the players to make his style of play work, maybe he’s telling us something and maybe we should listen to him.

There is another problem, though, so this might not solve the stress the way I thought at the start. Amid the near 50-50 boardroom split, the negotiations to confirm a final 49ers Enterprises takeover, and the push and pull over Jackie Harrison’s future this week, it’s going to be hard for the board to hide behind a good old fashioned sacking the way other boards do. If Leeds do appoint a new manager before this season is over — or this week is over — who will pose with their arm around him, cheesy grin in place, making confident assertions about a long and successful future — a future they either don’t own yet, or soon might sell? ⬢



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