Jesse Marsch acknowledges he was torn when the voice on the other end of the phone asked whether he would be prepared to replace Marcelo Bielsa at short notice.
As he addressed a roomful of reporters at Leeds United’s training ground near Wetherby wearing a box-fresh club tracksuit, Bielsa’s impressively open successor detailed how his life was transformed after the struggling team’s 6-0 defeat at Liverpool last week.
“I wanted to see Marcelo continue his legacy and keep the team up and I wanted to make that argument with Victor [Orta, Leeds director of football] when he called me eight days ago,” said Marsch. “I wanted Marcelo to finish on a high note but I could see the group suffering.”
Accordingly, when Leeds lost 4-0 at home to Tottenham last Saturday and Bielsa was swiftly sacked, Marsch’s mind was made up.
The manager, who left his last job at Leipzig in December, confirmed he had been talking to Orta about eventually succeeding Bielsa for the past two years, with the pair establishing powerful philosophical connectivity. “Being a good fit where you vibe with everything around you is often the most important thing you need as a manager,” he said. “It’s about finding people that care about the same things and that connection has made my first few days here a joy. I believe in this project so much.”
The 48-year-old – a big managerial hit at Red Bull Salzburg – intends to debunk a certain prejudice surrounding American coaches in English football. “I get it,” said Marsch, whose first assignment is at Leicester on Saturday. “I think there’s probably a stigma. People hate hearing the word soccer. I’m not sure Ted Lasso [the hapless sitcom character] has helped. But I’ve used the word football since I was a professional player and this is the fifth country I’ve coached in.”
He is only the second American to manage a Premier League team – in 2016 Bob Bradley was sacked by Swansea after 85 days – and is adamant his installation is not part of a “State-side takeover” orchestrated by the San Francisco 49ers, who hold a stake in Leeds.
“To say there’s an Americanization of this club would be inaccurate,” he said, pointing out that Andrea Radrizzani, the owner, is Italian, Angus Kinnear, the chief executive, British, and Orta Spanish. “Where I’m from, Milwaukee in Wisconsin, reminds me of a little bit of Leeds. My father worked on the assembly line in a tractor factory for 32 years. Working hard is what I know and this is a hard-working city.”
Marsch, mentored by the Manchester United interim manager, Ralf Rangnick, and like Bielsa an advocate of aggressive pressing, revealed that the “vibe” never felt quite right during his ill-starred five-month stint as Julian Nagelsmann’s successor at Leipzig. “I’ve followed living legends everywhere I’ve been,” he said, somewhat wryly.
In recent months Bielsa’s once gloriously attacking system has turned self-destructive, leaving Leeds conceding far too many goals and slipping towards the relegation zone. “The adjustment of tactics is my number one priority, getting away from the man-marking and not exposing us on transition as much,” said Marsch. “But this group is remarkable. It gives me big hope.
“I used to have an equation: fear to fail equals failure. Our style of play is fearless, we have a lot of fearless young men here, we have to tap into that. My goal is to access their hearts and minds. I understand this is a big league and a big moment and we have to get points but pressure is what you make of it.”
At least the stress in the treatment room is easing slightly with last season’s leading scorer, Patrick Bamford, and the England midfielder Kalvin Phillips close to returning from long spells on the sidelines.
“The medical team have introduced me to a myriad of injuries,” said Marsch. “There’s been a cycle when guys played with injuries and picked up more injuries. I must not endanger or overload the guys.
“Marcelo changed the mentality of the club and the team. I understand the things he did well but also that I don’t have to be Marcelo Bielsa.”