Pireplay, 2016. New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch held a training camp in Tucson, Arizona, for both his own team and the club’s second team. Instead of separating the two teams and focusing his attention on the former, Marsch brings everyone together, delivering a training session for 45 players of different ages and experience levels.
Off to the side, Marsch pauses mid-session. Wearing a satisfied smile, he turns to a colleague. “This,” he says, “I love.”
Six years on, Marsch applies the same theories of cohesion and holism to his role as Leeds United manager that he honed in New York, with stops in between – with mixed results – in Austria and Germany.
It will come as little surprise to those who have worked with him, then, to learn that, for example, at a recent press conference Marsch chose to discuss the test results of youth team midfielder Archie Gray and how he had encouraged the teenager to to continue further education.
“He gets everyone on the same page – the staff, the players, the guys who look after the pitches, the people who clean the facilities,” says former Leeds winger Mike Grella, who played under Marsh at the Red Bulls. “Everyone involved with the club, he will spend time with them, get their point of view, make everyone fight to win things together. That’s what he does best: he gets the best out of people.”
And, for the most part, it works.
Marsh was appointed in January to replace Marcelo Bielsa. Leeds, in just their second season back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence, were in danger of relegation. He immediately moved away from the marking style introduced by Bielsa and implemented a 4-2-2-2 formation widely used across Red Bull clubs – which later evolved into a narrow 4-2-3-1 – and strong pressing off. -ball.
Leeds improved enough to avoid the drop. This season, after a summer transfer window in which additions were made to suit his style, and with a full preparation to work with the team, Marsch will feel that August’s 3-0 demolition of Chelsea in Elland Road was the perfect application of it. style: relentless pressing and compact, tight attack.
Poor results since then – a draw at home to Everton sandwiched between away defeats to Brighton and Brentford – testify to the room for improvement that remains. But if Marsch needed further buy-in – internally or externally – Chelsea’s game was the perfect illustration of what is possible with his methods and Leeds’ carefully assembled collection of players.
However, not everyone is convinced.
It’s not just the specter of a beloved departing coach that Marsch has had to contend with, but also the stigma against American coaches when they cross the Atlantic.
In accepting the Leeds job, Marsh sought the advice of his former Princeton University and DC United manager, Bob Bradley, the first American to make it in the Premier League. Bradley’s appointment at Swansea City was publicly condemned by the club’s supporters’ trust and he was often mocked for using American football. He was fired after just 85 days.
Whatever wisdom he gleaned from Bradley didn’t stop Marsh and his ways from offending. His theatrical complaint about the match referees in the 5-2 defeat by Brentford, for example, earned him a red card and there was no shortage of criticism online and in print.
But the people Marsch most needed to win, the Leeds players, have been hugely impressed by the American. Those who played under Bielsa admired the quirky Argentine, but he was more aloof, less affable than the new boss. Players have spoken privately about Marsch, his approach and tactical prowess, with complementary tones.
“He’s so kind and so positive as a man,” says David Longwell, first-team coach with Shrewsbury Town who worked with Marsch when he was NYRB’s director of academies. “He’s just a leader. Any organization can talk about culture, but at Red Bulls the culture came from Jesse. He led civilization.
“When you’re around him, you want to do well for him, you want to work hard for him. These are players and staff.”
“He has a very good sense of when to make it business and when to make it personal,” adds San Jose Earthquakes technical director John Wolyniec, who coached the New York Red Bulls II. “He was always excited to bring players in and when most managers were showing clips [of games]he was showing pictures of their family.”
Leeds had a tenuous American connection before Marsh arrived: winger Jack Harrison, although born in Stoke-on-Trent, is a product of the American 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 in the West Yorkshire side.
Marsch has worked with both players before: Aaronson at Red Bull Salzburg, from whom Leeds bought the 21-year-old for $28.8m (£24.7m); and Adams, who was signed by RB Leipzig for $23.1m (£20m), as a youngster in New York.
Aaronson impressed in Chelsea’s win. His goal, for which he lured Blues goalkeeper Edouard Mendy into a costly error, was indicative of the attacking midfielder’s busy, high-octane style of play.
And just as Marsch is tasked with filling the huge void left by Bielsa, Adams has taken over the deep-lying midfield role previously held by Leeds native Kalvin Phillips, who was sold to Manchester City this summer for $51.9m (£45m).
Those who have worked with Adams are confident the 23-year-old will not be daunted by the prospect of replacing Phillips, nor by the physical rigors of the Premier League.
“Toughness is probably his biggest thing,” Grela says of his former NYRB teammate. “And it’s real cruelty. You look at him and he’s not too big, he’s not too imposing. But the toughness is in – his attitude, his ferocity, his ability to cover so much ground, his ability to be a good teammate.
“He got into a little bit with one of the senior players and held his own. It really hit him a little. Even though he was just as much a kid, it was impressive to draw a line and physically stand up for yourself. From that day on, we were like, “Yeah, this kid is legit.”
“He epitomizes everything Jesse wants to do: from the way he wants to play to his mindset, his character, all of it. Tyler Adams is a perfect fit for what Jesse wants.”
That Aaronson and Adams thrive together for Leeds in the Premier League is to the United States’ great advantage 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 impressed the fans and Marsch the most.
In New York, the manager was known for arriving early at the club’s training ground, before 7am every day, and even kept an exercise bike in his office so he could combine physical training with his trainer programming. He has spoken of his desire to learn about Yorkshire and wants his Leeds side to reflect the hard-working ethos of the county’s people.
“The one thing Leeds fans will always support and fall in love with is your work ethic,” Grela says. “No one has a better work ethic than Jesse, Tyler and Aaronson. So as long as they continue like this, they will always have the respect and hearts of the Leeds fans.”
But Marsch knows he’ll never please all the people all the time. Instead, he is focused on continuing to mold Leeds and its new transatlantic core in his image.
“There’s probably still a lot of doubt about me,” he said the day after his side thrashed Chelsea at Elland Road. “It’s okay. It’s normal. There’s going to be people who like me and people who hate me.
I just want the team to play with love, passion and belief.