Jesse Marsch no longer has to treat Leeds as the “band-aid” project they were when he was appointed in February.
Ahead of their third consecutive Premier League campaign, Leeds’ pre-season has seen a three-match tour to Australia tour bookended by a 4-0 friendly win over Championship side Blackpool in York and a fixture against Cagliari of Italy’s Serie B at Elland Road this Sunday.
Down Under, results were mixed, but this is pre-season — results don’t count.
Leeds' Australia pre-season results
In terms of tactical identity, Leeds have a head coach who has clearly been influenced by his time as an employee of the Red Bull group, having coached more than 200 games for its clubs in New York, Salzburg and Leipzig.
Marsch typically deploys a 4-2-3-1 shape, with the three behind the striker attacking narrowly, the full-backs providing the width, and a strong emphasis on vertical play along the ground. It’s a style that massively suits one Patrick Bamford, as the strikers are often fed through-balls. Aggressive, high pressing and reactive counter-pressing are the defensive cornerstones.
Having analysed those three tour fixtures in Australia, here are five things to look out for from Marsch’s Leeds in the coming season.
Rotating positions and issues at left-back
Although Marsch likes a 4-2-3-1, this is by no means fixed positionally, and in all three matches, Leeds rotated positions. This was notable in central midfield (namely new boy Marc Roca), with a player dropping either between or beside the two central defenders and acting as the quarterback.
This happened more on the left than the right, but that is due to the absence of a high-quality natural left-back (Stuart Dallas is still out after breaking a leg in late April).
Marsch tried Jack Harrison there, on paper at least, in the first tour game against A-League side Brisbane Roar. Leif Davis had a go three days later against Aston Villa but has since been sold to Ipswich Town of League One. Pascal Struijk was shoehorned in, and did quite well at times in possession, for the draw with Crystal Palace a week ago that concluded the trip.
Check out Leeds’ opening goal against Brisbane.
Roca dropped deep in the left half-space as they built from the back. Harrison can advance further forwards, and the Spaniard found him with a pass down the line…
… Harrison drove inside, playing a pass to the feet of Joe Gelhardt. The 20-year-old let the ball run through his legs, to Rodrigo, but a defender blocked it…
…only for the ball to fall at the feet of Adam Forshaw, who threaded a diagonal pass through for Daniel James to chase.
From an angle, James managed to beat the goalkeeper at his near post.
The principle was the same but the pattern looked different against Palace in Perth eight days later.
Roca dropped between right centre-back and right-back, and Crysencio Summerville, playing on the right wing, moved into the vacated central midfield space; Roca then broke the Palace press with a vertical pass to Summerville, who received on the half-turn and drove forward.
Summerville and Gelhardt exchanged passes, but Palace recovered their shape.
Patrick Vieira’s Londoners were centrally compact but vulnerable in wide areas, which Sam Greenwood exploited with a diagonal switch to the advanced right-back Rasmus Kristensen…
…who won an aerial duel with Tyrick Mitchell, flicking the ball on for Summerville.
He was fouled in the box, and Leeds were awarded a penalty, which Rodrigo converted.
Those diagonal switches were a staple in Leeds’ build-up, though often from right to left, looking for either Harrison or Brenden Aaronson, another new signing. And they looked to play into the wingers, because they tried to create chances through…
Wide triangles and vertical passes
As mentioned earlier, full-backs provide the width in Marsch teams — and Leeds are no exception. They looked to penetrate their opponents in Australia through slick, three-player passing combinations in wide areas, typically consisting of a full-back, the winger and the attacking midfielder (at times, it was a deeper-lying central midfielder).
Against Villa in Brisbane, Leo Hjelde found the feet of newcomer Luis Sinisterra, who flicked it on first time to Mateusz Klich as he made a third-man run.
Klich returned the ball with a diagonal pass to meet Sinisterra’s run between centre-back and full-back, a movement that is typical of a Marsch winger. The Colombia international then set the ball back to Hjelde, who crossed first time. Leeds didn’t get the first contact on the cross on this occasion but the movements and principles are clear.
Speaking after the Palace game, Marsch said Leeds were “still working on our effectiveness in the last third, in our ability to turn some advantages into real concrete chances, and goals”.
That’s understandable. Their only goal in 180 minutes against Premier League opposition this pre-season is that Rodrigo penalty, and they lacked regularly quality in their crossing.
Leeds threatened more in attacking transition and consistently looked to break the defensive line with a vertical pass.
Roca recovered the ball in the midfield third against Palace, and immediately threaded in Gelhardt…
…but the youngster’s attempt at a cute chip over Vicente Guaita was saved.
Similarly against Villa, Kristensen dispossessed Ollie Watkins in a one-v-one duel out wide, and quickly popped the ball in to Aaronson…
…and the American found Bamford with a through ball. As in the Gelhardt example above, his shot was saved, but missing chances is better than not creating them in the first place.
Constantly looking for defence-splitting passes is risky, though, and when Leeds do lose possession they look to…
“Gegenpressing” as it’s known in Germany, where it originated, is by now far from a new concept to the Premier League. It is about trying to win the ball back straight after losing it. This ties in closely to how Marsch wants his teams to press, but teams also defend how they want to attack (and vice-versa). For Leeds to attack teams with vertical passes through the middle, they need space and a disorganised opponent, both of which are possible if you can quickly recover the ball.
Critically, counter-pressing is a team activity, and Leeds often try to pincer press opponents by having multiple pressing players come from different sides of the ball. This cuts off passing options and hassles the player in possession into making a decision — and Leeds will hope it’s often the wrong one.
From kick-off against Brisbane, Leeds unsuccessfully attempted a vertical pass. Immediately, players converged around the opponent who ended up with the ball from both sides…
…which cut off the more dangerous passes into the Leeds half. The only space left was to play across to the central midfielder, a ball that Rodrigo anticipated. He forced the midfielder into a first-touch pass, which Leeds recovered.
Forshaw then found Rodrigo, who connected play to Gelhardt (another wide triangle)…
…and he slid James in. Leeds got the ball into the net on this move, but Aaronson was offside from the Welshman’s cutback.
Counter-pressing may be desired but it is required for Leeds, given how expansively they play.
The image below shows eight Leeds players in the Villa half at a point when they lost possession. As the closest players, Bamford and Kristensen both looked to apply pressure to the ball, while Roca advanced to prevent an easy forward pass to Villa No 10 Emiliano Buendia.
As the second Villa pass went backwards, Leeds pincered with Bamford (from the right) and Harrison (from the left).
This forced a one-touch pass forward to John McGinn (the white arrow in our next grab). Under pressure, McGinn played towards Morgan Sanson (blue arrow), but the hurried pass was bouncing. Aaronson and Roca then converged on the Frenchman and Leeds won the ball back.
Aaronson carried the ball forward and slid James into a crossing position, but his delivery was just behind the run of Bamford.
The counter-press wasn’t always this perfect, though.
Leeds were prepared to be aggressive and foul opponents, with multiple yellow cards given out against both Villa and Palace (Leeds also made the most fouls in the Premier League last season). And they did concede chances on the break against Brisbane, while Palace’s equaliser originated from a Leeds corner.
Leeds press when opponents have organised possession too, and try to exploit teams with…
Marsch explained to The Coaches’ Voice in 2021 that he has an acronym for pressing — SARD.
- S:Sprinting — aggressive running out of possession, but timing these sensibly
- A:Alle gemeinsam — a German phrase that translates as ‘all together’. A ball-orientated press, where the focus is pressing with more players than the opponents have around the ball
- R:Reingehen — a German word that translates as ‘going in’; a demand of full commitment to winning the ball
- D:Dazukommen — ‘Join in’; the second wave of the press, with the midfielders pushing up to support their forwards
Let’s apply these requirements to Leeds pressing Palace’s first two goalkeeper sequences.
Sprinting: Having forced Palace to play back to Guaita, Bamford continued his sprint, but curved the run to force play left towards Joel Ward rather than right to Joachim Andersen. This also encouraged Guaita to hit the pass with his non-dominant (left) foot.
Alle gemeinsam: Leeds had four players up, compared to Palace’s three outfielders, and Aaronson stayed tight to Luka Milivojevic — this prevented the Serbian playing on the half-turn.
He chose to pass wide to Andersen, which triggered Harrison’s sprint forward.
Reingehen and Dazukommen: Harrison then pressed Andersen to play back to Guaita, who had Bamford closing in on him. Leeds cut off central options and the only one left was a wedge pass up to Nathaniel Clyne, which the keeper played.
But as soon as Clyne received the ball, Leeds closed in with three players and the former England international opted for a risky backpass towards Guaita…
…which instead ended up at the feet of the lurking Bamford.
He combined with Sinisterra, who returned the ball to the striker, whose shot went wide.
The set-up is identical for sequence two just a minute later.
Sprinting: While they mark tightly in the centre, Leeds leave space on the wings and like to trap teams when they play it wide.
On this occasion, the pass went out to Mitchell at left-back and Kristensen sprinted in to press.
Alle gemeinsam: Mitchell played back to Ward, and Leeds had six players versus five in our next frame.
Reingehen and Dazukommen: Sinisterra then pressed Ward and had the support of his midfielders to prevent any passes through that area. This forced Ward to go long and Leeds recovered the ball on the edge of the final third.
As good as they are defensively in the attacking third, Leeds have struggled in their own third, notably when…
Defending set pieces
In three and a half seasons under Marsch’s predecessor Marcelo Bielsa, Leeds developed a reputation for conceding regularly from corners, while using a defensive scheme almost entirely dependent on player-to-player marking. Marsch has introduced a zonal line of three players at defensive corners.
In all three games we studied, they adopted particularly high lines against free kicks, almost regardless of the depth. They held this well against Villa and Brisbane in particular, catching opponents offside. Leeds will have VAR on their side when the Premier League season starts too, should they continue this high-risk, potentially high-reward approach.
So the “band-aid” is off and Marsch has made some inroads on healing last season’s wounds.
Considering Leeds’ activity so far in the transfer window, it is impressive that multiple new signings have looked sharp in pre-season, although Aaronson and Tyler Adams have played under Marsch before. The head coach himself noted “we still have work to do, but I can say having our team in concentration like this over a two-week period has brought them together in a big way“.
Of course, this will all be put to the test when Wolves turn up for next Saturday’s season opener. But this is a very different Leeds side to the one that avoided relegation in their final game of last season, both in terms of personnel and play style.
They certainly pride themselves on being tactically unique, which makes Marsch an appropriate fit.
You never know what to expect with Leeds, but there are certainly things to look out for in the American’s first full season in charge.