December 4, 2023

Jesse March
picture: Getty Images

Normally, when you’re a manager and save a team from a relegation, you’ll get a key to the city and have a welcome mat anywhere (and let me tell you from experience, having that in Leeds can make for a lot of rough mornings). Jesse Marsh is not that guy, although he saved Leeds from a certain relegation. One, because he replaced a legend in Marcelo Bielsa, and two, because he came from a country that still holds a high level of suspicion in football circles (and every other circle, probably).

Marsh didn’t help himself by declaring that he had never seen him before Ted Lasso, which everyone in the UK was too eager to call lazily. He then filled nearly every press conference afterward with any inspirational quote he could find on Twitter, which is exactly what that character would do. Although they barely managed to hold their place in the Premier League, Marsh got there in the end, but he didn’t win many fans.

It is a question of whether buying players from his home country will appease Leeds supporters and the media. But that seems to be the path he has chosen.

It’s no surprise that the manager brings in players he’s familiar with and worked with before, both Brendan Aaronson and Tyler Adams, highly rumored to be joining the former in the coming days, who meet that standard. Marsh practiced Aronson’s management in Salzburg, and Adams managed in New York. Nor is it that neither fulfills the need that Leeds has.

The problem for both is that they will replace perhaps the most important – and certainly most popular – Leeds players. While Aaronson will not be considered a direct replacement for Ravenna, it is likely that he will start his Leeds career in the front line, although perhaps on the left side rather than the right where Ravenna played. But he will take this place. He’s hardly the same type of player, but that won’t stop fans from pointing out what Ravenna might do in a particular situation or place that Aaronson failed to do. Ravenna can impress with his superb goals and dribbling, while Aaronson is all about energy and running off the ball (although he can do some of the things that Ravenna has done as well).

Adams will be more direct in taking his predecessor’s place in the squad, and this will be Calvin Phillips’ task, which will be the most difficult task. Phillips came through the Leeds system, and from there, he rose to become an England international. There is no other type of player that fans catch more. Phillips was the complete hub of the Bielsa system, which many Leeds followers had yet to leave. Not only was Phillips a brilliant defensive midfielder capable of protecting his grueling defence, but he wasn’t shy about reaching the other end either and helping create chances. This kind of dual role is only offered by very few players in the game.

This is not what Adams does, though he is not powerless to attack. Adams is a classic defensive midfielder, and may play more aggressively off the ball than Phillips did. His positioning is excellent, although he is more content with making a simple pass to get his team going the other way rather than joining the counters and attacking himself. There will be fewer fireworks with Adams than with Phillips, but perhaps a little more stability?

However, Adams remains unpopular with Leipzig last year, and the recent history of players moving from Germany to England is mostly frustrating. Leeds’ style, or what we think it will be now that Marsh can tune it to the way he wants, will be the Red Bull-esque style, full of pressing, responding and sprinting, which is what Leipzig steered clear of and why Marsh didn’t work out there. Adams and Aronson should fit in perfectly.

How much rope would they be given though… the strong tendency to say “not much” would be. Both would win some buffer early simply because they work so hard, and fans rarely stand on the back of any player putting in the most effort. But Leeds were lacking in goals at the end of last season and if Aaronson does not find the net early, he will be classed as a ‘hard try’. Aaronson isn’t being asked to be their top scorer or anything like that, but he does need to be involved and he needs to create some looks too. It is a big step from the Austrian league to the English Premier League.

Adams faces a test no less than that, as even if he plays well, Leeds’ defense may still be shaky. They certainly need a player like Adams to back them up and protect them, but this team is simply a goal-shattering team against last season and a defensive midfielder, no matter how good he is, will solve that.

The schedule should help. Leeds only sees one of their top players, Chelsea, in their first seven games. They will also see Everton and Nottingham Forest in these top seven, Wolves and Southampton who really shouldn’t wow anyone. A few wins should help everyone breathe a little. Indeed, Leeds’ difficult period will not last until the end of October, when they face Liverpool, Tottenham and Man City in the course of four matches.

But again, their three passports will be subjected to a most likely unfair microscope. Adams can go off position at times, especially if he’s a bit brave when his team has the ball. Aaronson must move from production in Austria to the biggest league in the world. If they succeed, this is a huge boon to USMNT. But if it doesn’t work, how quickly can Marsh pull the trigger on them? And if he doesn’t, how many knives are going to come out for him? There is a runway here, but the three have to bump into it.

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