ISSUE #15: The Puzzling 157 days of Jesse Marsch’s Leipzig
When Jesse March was appointed as Julian Nagelsmann’s successor last April, it felt like a monumental occasion for both German football and American soccer.
Just over 140 days on from his first preseason fixture though, the Wisconsin-native is now back in the wild again, becoming the first manager in Leipzig’s Bundesliga history to be fired.
Group stage elimination in the Champions league, and the 11th spot in the Bundesliga are glaring signs of Marsch’s suboptimal showing, however more than anything, it's been the fluctuating performances which forced Oliver Mintzlaff to pull the plug.
Executing a fantastic game plan in the win over Dortmund showed glimpses of Marsch’s system clicking, but it ultimately never materialized into anything substantial with more desolate performances and inexplicable defeats following.
So, whilst many may have considered Leipzig the most complete squad in this season's topflight, much has gone wrong across the opening 14 matchdays to lead to Marsch becoming the latest managerial casualty in this season’s Bundesliga
Perhaps the best place to start is the fluctuating results.
Since his competitive debut on the 7th of August, Marsch has overseen 21 fixtures at RB Leipzig - 14 in the league, 5 in the UCL, and 2 in the DFB-Pokal. Only once across this 5 month stretch did Leipzig manage to string two successive victories together - with the second in this run coming against 4th-tier Babelsberg.
If we compare this start to the other coaches in Leipzig’s Bundesliga history, the reasons for a premature termination become even clearer.
Following promotion to the Bundesliga, Ralph Hasenhüttl (now at Southampton) took over the side and led Die Bullen on an unbeaten streak between gameweek 1 and gameweek 13.
In 2018/19 Rangnick (now at Manchester United) resumed his position in the managerial dugout and won over support with a 4-match winning streak and 10-game unbeaten run between the end of September and early November.
And finally, Julian Nagelsmann (now at Bayern). Despite staggering in the early weeks, he too turned his fortunes around with a 5-match winning streak in November where Leipzig netted 24 goals.
In the case of each of Marsch’s predecessors, a string of successive victories helped ease the pressure from the board, and provided the necessary precedent for complete buy-in from the playing squad.
Without an extended winning-spell, the American coach was always fighting against the current to appease the RB hierarchy, and convince the playing squad of his radical shift to a more direct playing style.
Though there were sporadic moments where we saw Marsch’s football spark into life, a string of recurrent setbacks meant none of the quality performances lingered very long.
If the lack of a true winning-streak meant Marsch never operated in a settled environment, what then led to Leipzig’s inability to churn out victories in the fashion of years gone by?
Notable departures in the form of Sabitzer, Upamecano, and Konate played a substantial role, however this is nothing new for a club which, since 2019, boasts the second-highest transfer incomes in German football - €286.50m to be exact.
Rather, Marsch’s biggest stumbling block has been himself, emanating a blind determination to revert Leipzig back to the more basic Red Bull model of offensive gegenpressing and quick, vertical, football.
Though a shift back to the fundamentals isn’t inherently flawed, it didn’t sit well with a squad which had excelled in the past two seasons under Nagelsmann’s more reasoned, possession-oriented, approach.
According to The Athletic’s Raphael Honigstein, players considered the tactical setup a backwards step from what they had built up over the past 18 months, whilst individuals like Dani Olmo - who had specifically been signed for an assertive possession outfit - now looked on from the sidelines without a clearly defined role in the starting eleven.
Even the two biggest signings in 2021 - the €55m package of André Silva and Dominik Szoboszlai - failed to make sense in the context of Jesse Marsch’s appointment. The former excelled last season as a central focal point at Eintracht Frankfurt, whilst Szoboszlai has become a worldwide sensation for his magical ingenuity in possession, not his tactical discipline in a highly structured pressing system.
Things ultimately came to a head following a Champions League defeat to Club Brugge in late-September, a match in which Leipzig generated 55 missed passes in the second half alone.
Club-captain Péter Gulácsi summed it up in the post-match mixed zone, with his frustration mixing with disappointment at the ‘fatalistic’ style in which Leipzig needlessly handed over possession:
“Every ball we won was gone again in 2-seconds, you just can’t win games like that”
That’s Jesse Marsch’s “Fucking-Forward” football, and if your club captain isn’t buying in, you’re in deep trouble.
This lack of tactical clarity and player buy-in was just the tip of the iceberg, with Marsch’s formational layout probably the first red flag held up against his time in charge.
In Marsch’s first 6 matches (in the Bundesliga & Champions League) Leipzig were set up in a 4-2-3-1, a system they had used sparingly the previous season and primarily utilized when facing weaker sides.
Marsch, however, was adamant about having an additional attacking player to apply pressure in the final third, even if it left Leipzig further exposed defensively and fallible to dangerous 2v2 situations.
Of the 7 matches in which Leipzig used a 4-2-3-1 under Marsch, Die Roten Bullen won just once, and conceded a whopping 14 goals in the process. The following clip from their 4:1 defeat to Bayern is a prime example of how Marsch’s aggressive system was routinely undone. A simple give away in midfield, is mercilessly punished as both of Leipzig’s fullbacks are pushed on, and Marsch’s side doesn’t have the extra protection of an additional centerback.
Playing such a fast, vertical style isn’t inherently flawed, but doing so without some defensive protection for when mistakes inevitably occur is simply suicidal.
Furthermore, the change in system negated the strengths of one of RB Leipzig’s most important players during the last season: 24-year old wingback Angeliño.
Under Nagelsmann, Angeliño contributed 8 goals and 11 assists in all competitions last season - the joint-most of any player in the squad and the most of any defender in last season’s Champions League.
A major factor in Angeliño’s outlandish attacking output was the 3-4-3 system, providing the Spaniard ample space to foray forward whilst lowering the burden in his own defensive third. Of his 19 goal contributions in all competitions, 15 of them came in a wingback role, including all but one of his scorer-points in the Champions League.
With Leipzig’s side lacking traditional wingers, and André Silva profiling as a poacher rather than link-up-man, adopting the 3-4-3 should have been a prerequisite from the offset, rather than a fallback once it became abundantly clear that the 4-2-3-1 wouldn’t bear fruit.
A clear tactical identity is always at the core of any managerial appointment, but not adapting to the players at hand is setting oneself up for failure. Even the great Pep Guardiola - who had just won 14 titles in 4 seasons at FC Barcelona - adapted his tactical outlook when taking over FC Bayern.
After a short-stint in which Guardiola tried to deploy Franck Ribery in the Messi false-nine role, the Spaniard quickly saw the benefits of a traditional number 9 in the more physical Bundesliga.
In ‘Pep Confidential’, Martí Perarnau’s exclusive behind-the-scenes novel detailing Guardiola’s first season in Munich, the Spanish journalist mentions just this aspect. Here is what he writes after Bayern turned a 0:1 deficit into a 2:1 win through the late introduction of two center-forwards.
“It is possible to conclude that Pep has betrayed his own principles, but when asked this very question after the game, his response is blunt. ‘What the fuck are you talking about, mate? We needed to win the game…”
Though we don’t have the same exclusive access to Jesse Marsch, through his persistence with what worked in Salzburg, he was bound to set himself up for failure by neglecting to adapt to the stronger opposition in the Bundesliga and the varied strengths of his RB Leipzig squad.
Needing to win games often means compromising your ideologies for the greater good, but in Marsch’s 21 matches in charge that shift in outlook never seemed to materialize, and the American paid the ultimate price for it in the end.
“It’s an outstanding team, and Jesse is a good coach. But after careful deliberation, we realized it wasn’t the perfect fit.”
Those were the final words of Oliver Mislintat before the era of Jesse Marsch slammed shut for good.
Though the American coach embodies the Red Bull philosophy and idolizes grand master Ralf Rangnick, from the offset there was a lingering sense that the appointment came too late in the chain.
In his two years at the helm, Nagelsmann had built a well-rounded, hard-hitting outfit which was able to progress all the way to a Champions League semi-final. Die Roten Bullen were holding more possession, pressing less intensely, and boasting a higher xG than in any of their previous top flight campaigns.
Now, it is up to Domenico Tedesco to both steady the ship and rescue this season by connecting back to the identity which was instilled by Nagelsmann.
Though not a ‘company man’ like Jesse Marsch, the 36-year old has a shared past with the modern RB Leipzig, overseeing TSG Hoffenheim’s under 19s after Julian Nagelsmann was promoted to the head coaching job in 2016.
The two remain good friends off the pitch, and share many similarities in their tactical approach. The pair even finished their coaching badges together, with Tedesco actually coming top of the class ahead of the now Bayern-manager.
In previous head coach stints at Erzgebirge Aue, Schalke 04, and Spartak Moscow, Tedesco proved his know-how as a competent young manager, and his favored 3-4-1-2 shape should play into the cards of a squad which is still yearning for an evolution of the Nagelsmann blueprint.
Whether Tedesco can lift the club’s elusive first title remains to be seen, but as of today, the appointment looks to be the perfect antidote to the perplexing 150-days of Jesse Marsch football.
Do you think Jesse Marsch deserved more time? How do you think Domenico Tedesco will fare at RB Leipzig? Let me know on twitter using #BUNDESLETTER
Cover Photo: Gabriel Foligno