The idea that Jesse Marsch was the sole reason Leeds avoided the drop last year is perhaps filled with more romance than substance. A Burnley victory against Newcastle on the final day would have condemned the Whites to the drop, whilst a draw with the Magpies meant that Yorkshire outfit would have to win at Brentford.
A Callum Wilson brace in Lancashire saw Eddie Howe’s men do their part for Leeds’ survival prospects, but it wasn’t until a last-gasp Jack Harrison winner, aided by the hosts being down to nine thanks to injury and a red card and their minds perhaps focussed on Marbella and Dubai, that Marsch’s men were safe.
Taking over from Marcelo Bielsa was an unenviable task for anyone coming through the door. Murals of the Argentine adorned buildings in the city he captured hearts and the majority of fans still believed in his methods even when the club’s hierarchy did not. Marsch was in as soon as Bielsa had cleared his office; a swift appointment that chairman Andrea Radrizzani and Director of Football Victor Orta had been motioning behind the scenes for weeks.
It is perhaps the perfect illustration and indication of the club’s current direction, or lack of it, that the most influential manager of a generation could be replaced in the blink of an eye, yet plans were not afoot to appoint a successor to a coach who could only muster two league wins since August. Marsch had received the financial backing of the board in two transfer windows, and despite bringing in players familiar to him and his style of play, couldn’t find the results the side needed.
His insistence on using a narrow system was a stark contrast to the previous regime, where wingers Jack Harrison and Raphinha hugged the touchline. “The goal is in the middle on the end line and so when we win balls, we don’t want to run to the corner. We want to run to the middle of the pitch where the goal is and that’s how you score goals,” he joked.
Three games between Marsch’s sacking after suffering defeat at Nottingham Forest to the appointment of Javi Gracia, a double-header against bitter rivals Manchester United and a trip to fellow strugglers Everton. Interim manager Michael Skubala, a coach who had earned his stripes as England national futsal manager, stepped up from his U-21s role and masterminded a hard-fought point away at Old Trafford before Erik ten Hag’s side ran out 2-0 winners at Elland Road a few days later.
The plan it seemed was initially to stick with Skubala for the foreseeable future, after endeavours to lure Rayo Vallecano’s Andoni Iraola and Feyenoord’s Arne Slot came up short. It wasn’t until a dismal display in the defeat at Goodison Park saw the club reignite their search for a new head coach.
Leeds are not a lost cause. In Tyler Adams, the American skipper who led his side out in Qatar, they have a combative, ball-winning midfielder who has filled the void left by Kalvin Phillips’ departure. His 81 tackles so far this term is second only to Fulham’s João Palhinha in the Premier League.
Italian starlet Wilfried Gnonto has emerged as one of Europe’s brightest talents in just a handful of appearances and French forward Georginio Rutter bolstered attacking options in a record-breaking deal last month. The tools are there for former Watford man Gracia, but failure to provide an immediate upturn in fortunes will see the club make an unwanted return to the EFL Championship.
The Spaniard favours a 4-4-2 system traditionally, but recently used a 3-4-2-1 when guiding Al Sadd to last season’s Qatar Stars League title. The 4-4-2 used in England and during an eventful spell with Spanish giants Valencia defended deep yet looked to use overlapping fullbacks when inverted wingers tucked inside.
The longest-standing managerial tenure under the Pozzo ownership, Gracia guided the Hornets to their highest-ever Premier League finish, eleventh, and an FA Cup final. Yet as is so often the case with the trigger-happy Italian, the Pamplona-born boss was dismissed after failing to win any of his first four matches the following campaign.
A telling quote from Troy Deeney, courtesy of The Athletic, outlines Gracia’s initial approach following his appointment midway through a relegation scrap. “He had the experience to realise that in the situation we were in, midway through a season, he couldn’t do anything radical. But he made important improvements nonetheless.”
Signing a ‘flexible’ contract as Leeds, Gracia has a chance to make some of the important improvements mentioned by Deeney as the Whites welcome bottom club Southampton in their biggest game of the season to date.
By: Jack Douglas / @JDouglasSport
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Miguel Riopa – AFP