P2016 re-season. New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch has arranged a training camp in Tucson, Arizona for both his own team and the club’s second team. Rather than separate the two groups and focus his attention on the first-team players, Marsch brings everyone together and offers a training session for 45 players of different ages and experience levels.
Marsch pauses on the sidelines in the middle of the session. With a satisfied smile he turns to a colleague. “That,” he says, “I love it.”
Six years later, in his role as Leeds United manager, Marsch applies the same theories of togetherness and wholeness he refined in New York, with stints – with mixed results – in Austria and Germany.
It will therefore come as no surprise to those who have worked with him to learn that, for example, at a recent press conference, Marsch discussed the exam results of youth team midfielder Archie Gray and how he has encouraged teenagers to further their education.
“He brings everyone together – the staff, the players, the guys who tend the pitches, the people who clean the facilities,” said former Leeds winger Mike Grella, who played under Marsch at Red Bulls . “Anyone associated with the club, he will spend time with them, get their opinion and get everyone to fight for victory together. That’s what he does best: he brings out the best in people.”
And for the most part it works.
Marsch was appointed in January to replace Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds were threatened with relegation in their second season in the Premier League after a 16-year absence. He immediately moved away from the man-marking style introduced by Bielsa and implemented a 4-2-2-2 form widely used in Red Bull clubs – which later evolved into a tight 4-2-3-1 – and intense push-off ball.
Leeds improved enough to avoid the crash. This season, after a summer transfer window that saw additions befitting his style and with a full pre-season to work with the squad, Marsch will complete that 3-0 win over Chelsea at Elland Road in August as the full implementation of Marsch style: relentless pressing and a compact, narrow attack.
Poor results since – a home draw with Everton between away defeats at Brighton and Brentford – show there is still room for improvement. But when Marsch needed further buy-in – internally or externally – the Chelsea game was the perfect example of what’s possible with his methods and carefully curated roster of Leeds players.
However, not everyone is convinced.
It’s not just the specter of a beloved outgoing manager that Marsch has struggled with, but also the stigma against American coaches when crossing the Atlantic.
When Marsch took the job at Leeds, he sought the advice of his former Princeton University coach Bob Bradley and DC United, the first American to work in the Premier League. Bradley’s appointment to Swansea City was publicly condemned by the club’s supporters’ confidence and he was routinely ridiculed for his use of American football lingo. He was released after just 85 days.
Whatever wisdom he picked up from Bradley didn’t stop Marsch and his mannerisms from offending. For example, his theatrical complaint to equalize officials in the 5-2 loss to Brentford earned him a red card and much criticism online and in print.
But the people Marsch needed to win most, the Leeds players, were largely impressed by the American. Those who played under Bielsa admired the headstrong Argentine, but he was more distant, less likable than the new boss. Players have privately spoken in compliments about Marsch, his approach and his tactical acumen.
“He’s so personable and he’s such a positive man,” says David Longwell, a first-team coach at Shrewsbury Town who worked with Marsch when he was NYRB’s academy manager. “He’s just a leader. Any organization can talk about culture, but at Red Bulls, the culture came from Jesse. He pushed the culture.
“When you’re around him, you want to please him, you want to work hard for him. These are players and staff.”
“He has a good sense of when it’s business and when it’s personal,” adds San Jose Earthquakes technical director John Wolyniec, who previously coached the New York Red Bulls II. “He was always excited to bring players and when most coaches would show clips [of games]he would show pictures of her family.”
Leeds had a tenuous American connection prior to Marsch’s arrival: winger Jack Harrison, although born in Stoke-on-Trent, is a product of the US football system. He left Manchester United’s academy at 14 to attend the Berkshire School in Massachusetts. He then spent two years with Manhattan SC and played college football for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons before signing with Manchester City’s sister club New York City FC.
But the summer arrivals of Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams have helped cement a transatlantic identity within the West Yorkshire side.
Marsch has previously worked with both players: Aaronson at Red Bull Salzburg, from whom Leeds bought the 21-year-old for $28.8m (£24.7m); and Adams, who was signed as a youngster in New York for $23.1m (£20m) from RB Leipzig.
Aaronson impressed immensely in Chelsea’s win. His goal, which cost Blues keeper Edouard Mendy a costly error, was indicative of the attacking midfielder’s lively, high-octane style of play.
And just as Marsch is tasked with filling the huge void left by Bielsa, Adams has stepped into the deep midfield role previously filled by Leeds native Kalvin Phillips, who booked for US$51.9million this summer Dollar (45 million pounds) was sold to Manchester City.
Those who have worked with Adams are certain the 23-year-old will not be intimidated by the prospect of replacing Phillips, nor by the physical demands of the Premier League.
“Toughness is probably his greatest strength,” Grella says of his former NYRB teammate. “And it’s real toughness. You look at him and he’s not very tall, he’s not very imposing. But the toughness is in him – his attitude, his ferocity, his ability to cover so much ground, his ability to be a good teammate.
“He got into a little argument with one of the older players and held his own. He actually beat him up a bit. Even though he was young enough to draw a line and stand up for himself physically, it was impressive. From that day on, we thought, “Yes, this kid is real.”
“He embodies everything that Jesse wants to do: from the way he wants to play, to his mentality, to his character and all of that. Tyler Adams is a perfect fit for what Jesse wants.”
Having Aaronson and Adams succeed together for Leeds in the Premier League is to the great advantage of the United States ahead of this winter’s World Cup.
And while the American duo have proven they have the technical quality to succeed at the highest level, it’s their intensity and dedication that has most impressed fans and march alike.
In New York, the manager was known for being at the club’s training ground early, checking in before 7am daily, and he even wheeled an exercise bike into his office to combine a physical workout with his technical planning. He has spoken of a desire to learn about Yorkshire and wants his side in Leeds to reflect the hard-working ethos of the people of the county.
“The one thing Leeds fans will always support and fall in love with is your work ethic,” says Grella. “Nobody has a better work ethic than Jesse, Tyler and Aaronson. As long as they continue like this they will always have the respect and hearts of Leeds fans.”
But Marsch knows he’ll never please everyone. Instead, he is focused on continuing to shape his image of Leeds and its new transatlantic core.
“I probably still have a lot of doubts,” he said the day after his side hammered Chelsea at Elland Road. “It’s okay. It’s normal. There will be people who like me and people who hate me.
“I just want the team to play with love, passion and conviction.”