LEEDS, England — Marc Roca lets out a shout of frustration as a move breaks down, and his group head back to halfway to try again. It’s early Wednesday morning at Leeds United’s training ground Thorpe Arch and the team are preparing for the Sunday match against Chelsea.
The whole passage of play restarts. The attack wins the ball off the defence in midfield, Jack Harrison emerges down the wing, zips past a defender and slips it to Roca, who squares it for Tyler Adams to thump it home. Roca turns to two people watching and roars approval, and amid some laughter they head back to start the drill again. All the while Jesse Marsch and his coaches watch, offering tweaks here and there.
Once training has finished and the players have had lunch and showered, they head off in various directions, but Brenden Aaronson is left holding a soaked sponge; the USMNT star is covered in water and foam. He lost one of the games in training, and his forfeit was to clean Adams’ car.
It’s all very relaxed. Four days later, Leeds hammered Chelsea 3-0 and moved up to second in the Premier League. You wouldn’t know that months earlier, the club were scrapping against relegation.
When Marsch took over from Marcelo Bielsa at the start of March, Leeds were fighting for their Premier League life. The environment he encountered was tense, the strain of the situation getting to the players. “I could see the stress when I came in, and I knew the job I thought I had to do was maybe five times harder,” Marsch tells ESPN.
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But as they hit a midseason reset, they started clocking up the points and on the final day, the club avoided relegation thanks to their win at Brentford and Burnley dropping points elsewhere. Then the focus shifted to the next season in the Premier League under their new boss.
The summer saw two star players leave in Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips, with that money reinvested in seven new faces, giving Leeds an opportunity to evolve. The players brought in all slot into how Marsch wants his team to play: high-pressing, quick-tempo, relentless, claustrophobic football. The recruits were perfect for Marsch’s system and made an immediate impact. But though there’s a short-, medium- and long-term plan for the club, none of that detracts from the weekly necessity of racking up points and making sure they’re nowhere near another relegation scrap.
“I know the longevity of a person in these positions is not great,” Marsch says. “But every job I take, I treat it as I’m the custodian of the club. I try to operate in the best interests of the club and team, and I find if you do that effectively, you can create both short-term, and long-term success. Now, here at this level, it’s the biggest challenge of my life, right?”
When he was first approached by Leeds, Marsch wasn’t sure if he was ready for a return to the hot seat. The outgoing manager was seen as a footballing deity by Leeds fans, having led the club back into the Premier League for the first time in 16 years and into the ninth spot in their return to the top flight. But their form was troubling in the 2021-22 season and by the end of February, the club and Bielsa went their separate ways.
When February ticked around into March, Marsch was enjoying time away from the daily rigours of management. His previous role at RB Leipzig hadn’t worked out, and he left in December after just four months in the post.
He spent the intervening period travelling, visiting friends, spending time with his family and soaking up new experiences. Then the phone rang.
“Leeds came knocking before I thought I would get back to work, and my first thought was the timing wasn’t right,” Marsch says. He spoke to his wife, Kim, and to his three children. Hearing he was approached by a club is nothing new. Kim’s message to Jesse has always been to not tell the family of potential interest “until it gets serious because things get tossed around all the time,” he says.
Marsch was approached by the club after sporting director Victor Orta had identified him as the best man from 42 potential candidates to replace the outgoing Bielsa. “I would say Victor and his team do a really good job of scouring the world really looking for — and using data very heavily, data and analytics — the right types of players that can fit into the way that we think about football,” Marsch says. “This was how they found me as the coach.”
Marsch was originally keen to take over at the end of the season, rather than midway through the campaign, but as he thought more about the opportunity, he envisaged these jigsaw pieces clicking together.
“The more I looked at the potential of what I thought the club and the team could be, the more excited I got,” Marsch says. “I changed my mind overnight. I knew I was going to have to dig into everything on a higher level and faster than I wanted to, but that the reward and opportunity was bigger than the threat of failure. I came here because I felt like Leeds was the right place for me.”
On arrival, he knew the potential and ability of the group, but the key was to tap into it amid a period as stressful as the club had endured for some time. “At the start Andrea [Radrizzani, the majority shareholder at Leeds] asked me how quickly I could transform the team from the way Marcelo played into the way I wanted to play. I wasn’t totally sure, because I’d never taken over a team so deeply ingrained in a specific style to what I wanted. But I think we did well; it wasn’t just the style of play, but also the stress of the relegation situation. It meant we had to free the players to commit intellectually, physically and emotionally to what we needed to become.”
Marsch emptied the tank over those two-and-a-half months leading up to the final day. Rodrigo, the Spain striker, speaking back in March, said Marsch’s first on-field steps were to shift the team away from one-vs.-one marking to zonal, and it helped their transitional play from defense to attack. He also emphasised how Marsch “tried to understand everyone” to figure out how to get the best out of the squad. Some players needed picking up, other players needed reminding of their ability.
“As soon as he came in, he’s been brilliant,” Daniel James tells ESPN. “He’s good with everyone, giving information all the time. He’s someone you can approach with anything, anytime.”
After several heart-stopping moments and twists and turns, goals from Raphinha and Harrison gave Leeds a 2-1 win at Brentford, while Burnley losing to Newcastle United meant Marsch’s side had successfully retained their top-flight status. “It wasn’t easy to manage and I was trying to think of ways to help the group tactically and, to be fair, we have had good performances, it’s just trying to put it all together that hasn’t always looked perfect,” Marsch said at the time.
“The stress has been high for three months, I’ve tried to stay calm and focus on us and you see the quality of the mentality and character.”
Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams explain the conversation they had before the USMNT midfielder signed for Leeds.
As he reflects on the end of last season, Marsch smiles, but also exhales. He says it “required all of the experience and insight and expertise that I’ve gathered over my years to get this moving the way I wanted it to,” though his memories of that day aren’t around the goals but instead the fans and that connection they had with the team. After his first three months of working on psychology to get the team out of a relegation battle, the next stage was shifting attention to the football and the future.
Marsch headed back to the U.S. to refuel after the season. A couple of days in, he needed a new pair of jeans. He was in New York at the time, so he headed to the Levi’s shop in Times Square. It was the usual routine he’d done tens of times before: train to Penn Station, 15-minute walk to the store. But this time, he had football fans asking him for a photo.
“That for me was an eye-opening moment, because I’d never been treated like that,” he says. “You know, sometimes here around Leeds people know who I am. But back home, I never thought that that would be the case. So you know, there’s obviously a sense of responsibility in terms of what that means.”
His favourite on-field moment so far is Joe Gelhardt’s goal against Norwich last term, but his most memorable off-field memories shift daily, from the fans he meets while out walking his dogs, to those waiting outside the training ground asking him to autograph a shirt while advising him which player to sign.
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Leeds’ summer outlay to date is roughly the same as the outgoings, with Raphinha moving to Barcelona for a £55 million transfer fee and Phillips to Manchester City for £42m. Both were key players, but the money has been reinvested in new faces: Aaronson and Rasmus Kristensen from FC Salzburg, Adams from Leipzig, Luis Sinisterra from Feyenoord, Joel Robles from Real Betis, Roca from Bayern Munich and Darko Gyabi from Manchester City.
From their opening three matches, we’ve seen Leeds operate in a 4-2-3-1, which shifts to a 4-2-2-2. The front three players — Harrison, Aaronson and James started there against Chelsea — are largely interchangeable behind Rodrigo leading the line, and it’s their mission to run like hell at the opposition. They hustle the opponents until they give up the ball and then attack at pace, in as quick and direct a manner as possible. Leeds are playing more vertically this season than before, but it’s anchored on fitness and sprinting. You can see how the summer recruits have slotted in: Adams and Roca causing mischief in the midfield but forcing turnovers, and then it’s up to Aaronson and Sinisterra to turn the opportunity of a counterattack into a goal-scoring chance.
Leeds also went for younger players, and it’s their policy to offer such talents long-term contracts. They have the sixth-youngest average age of their starting XI in the Premier League, and it’s all tuned into their policy in the transfer market.
“It’s always an opportunity,” Marsch says of the summer’s business. “I don’t care. If you’re talking about failure, success, money, losing players, gaining players, it’s always about seeing the opportunity and then seizing it. And so it’s the reason I came here in the end was because I saw the opportunity even in a relegation fight of what Leeds United could become.
“And we tried to, at every moment, see what’s happening within our team, within our transfer politics. Within every decision we make we see where the opportunities are and how to grow and how to get better.”
Their vast database includes many matching capabilities, but it comes down to a human touch. “Once the metrics match their metrics, then it’s about really investing in who the person is to ensure the person we’re bringing in honours the environment that we really are establishing and trying to create every day,” Marsch explains. “And I think the balance of the two is what Victor does so well.”
Some of the transfers were planned before Marsch’s arrival, such as Aaronson from Salzburg. Leeds went for him in the January transfer window, but he decided to see the season out in Austria. And just days after Leeds’ survival was confirmed, he was the first signing of the Marsch era.
Aaronson remembers his first meeting with Leeds and the appeal of the club. “Just the plan that the club had, you know, and the people surrounding it,” Aaronson tells ESPN. “The club wanted me here and was so supportive and showed me how much they wanted me here and how they wanted me to be a part of that plan. We have high expectations of the club and the fans do, too. And that’s something I want to be a part of developing me as a player and as a person.”
He was later joined by fellow USMNT starter Adams. While Aaronson finished the 2021-22 campaign on a high, Adams struggled in his last season at Leipzig while managing some niggling injuries, but his class endured. He was the player Leeds identified to form a double pivot with Roca in midfield, but they had to be sure about where his head was at first.
“I had a tough conversation with Jesse before I came here about finding the old Tyler,” Adams said. “I felt like in my time at Leipzig I lost a little bit of confidence. I lost the way of, you know, who I was and what I wanted to become. And I got a little bit too much in my comfort zone.
“So we had a tough conversation, we talked over it, not an argument in any way or sense but some difficult points came across.”
“I’ve known him for so long,” Marsch said. “I’m very proud of him and I’ve always believed in him. Always, but I’ve also known that he’s had challenges, you know, big challenges. And it’s not just about playing or not, it’s about how an environment works and how people interact.
Brenden Aaronson speaks about his start to life in the Premier League with Leeds United.
“When I brought him here, I said we just need you to get back to being the kind of player that you are and more freedom in the way that you express yourself as a person, as a player on the pitch. We have a really strong foundation of a team here and we have leaders in the team, but I wanted to make sure that he knew there was a responsibility to commit to the team fully in a selfless manner, because I know what the mentality of the group and the character of the group is here.”
“We took a week to reconnect,” Adams said, “and I reflected on my time at Leipzig, you know, [and] what I wanted to become as a player and person, and when we reconnected I was all-in and bought into the idea of coming here and finding the old Tyler.”
Adams describes the old Tyler as an “absolute beast on the field,” someone who “doesn’t really overthink anything.” He fits the bill of what Marsch pictures as your archetypal Leeds player. Marsch says he wants his team to be known for their hard work, with his players “ready to fight and run and commit and do everything they can for every second of the match.”
There may yet be further recruits this summer — Leeds are looking into bolstering their options up front — but only if the right player is there.
“I know that those transfers are always a lightning rod in the public and they want to see us continue to invest,” Marsch says. “But we just want to make sure that every decision we make is the right one.
“I think the additions we’ve made have been perfect. Perfect. Right, really, I think the seven additions we’ve made have been fabulous. And the key is to keep that 100% rate. And it’s almost impossible to do, but that’s our job.”
Leeds’ season began with Wolverhampton Wanderers coming to Elland Road. The new-look team edged past Bruno Lage’s side 2-1, thanks to goals from Rodrigo and (officially) an own-goal from Rayan Ait-Nouri, though Aaronson still claims he had the final touch. But there were no doubts over Aaronson’s first in Leeds’ win over Chelsea on Sunday, as he hustled Edouard Mendy to force the error that gave the team their opener. Their third was reminiscent of what they were practising in training Wednesday: winning the ball back, countering at pace and punishing the opponent.
But Marsch would have loved one statistic above all in that match, exhibiting exactly what he wants from his team: after 80 minutes, Leeds had run 11 kilometres farther than Chelsea. When Aaronson is told that statistic postmatch, the young American smiles and says that’s what they want to be known for: work rate.
When you talk to the new signings about their first impressions of the Premier League, Adams says he was “absolutely shattered.” But without prompting, they mention the Elland Road atmosphere. Aaronson says it was “electric,” while Adams adds: “It gave me goosebumps. This kind of support is what pushes you on in the 90th minute to make that extra sprint back to tackle harder.”
For Marsch, there are many moments that have emphasised how big a job managing the team is: like when he saw his first Leeds United tattoo on a supporter’s leg on his first day, or when he heard the club’s anthem coming from the stands. “This is what I love. You know, I don’t like when they chant my name. I just don’t, and I know they’re doing it to be unified in what we’re doing. But I love it so much more when I hear ‘Marching on Together’ or Leeds or Yorkshire or whatever, you know, it’s not me I care about, it’s the club and this is why I love being here.”
Leeds manager Jesse Marsch recalls the moment he got recognised when shopping in New York.
He quickens the pace as he talks more about why he feels so at home at the club. “It’s just a selflessness from every member of this entire sporting organization to help the team and to do whatever they need to do in their role for the on-the-field product to be what we all want it to become.”
Marsch has also enjoyed interacting with the San Francisco 49ers, with 49ers Enterprises owning a 46% stake in Leeds. “I liked going to watch the 49ers train, seeing how they work, seeing how organized they are, and how they are structured,” Marsch says, referring to his visit to the 49ers minicamp in the offseason. “That’s been a bit of an eye-opener and very interesting to see. And I think it’s helped me even organize things. And I like to be organized. I like to be on top of things. I don’t like to be caught by surprises.”
The focus shifts to what Marsch hopes Leeds achieve in the future. “We can’t feel too good about ourselves, we can’t feel too bad about ourselves. We just have to have a relentless commitment to keep moving forward.
“The goal isn’t to have total harmony, but to create a common understanding as to what we are, our identity and to commit to that every day. I don’t have a problem of telling somebody if they’re not carrying their weight, or of telling them how disappointed or angry I am because I will protect the environment above everything. That’s the most important thing: it’s not harmony, it’s about identity, expectation and making sure that in every way we’re maximising the potential of each other and of the group every day.”
Marsch and his family are settled in Yorkshire: the Wisconsinite who found a home in Leeds. “I think what I’ve learnt more than anything, it’s just that I belong here,” he says. But he’s just getting going. He’s aware of how managers are an endangered species, and his responsibility in keeping the ship steered in the right direction.
“There’s still a lot of work to do and our goals are much bigger than just a couple of good performances,” Marsch says. “But I’m thankful to be here. It’s an important position, an important club and I know that fully.
“So yeah, when you asked me how’s Leeds? Leeds is pretty damn good.”