Leeds United’s Future: A search for a new manager, Jesse Marsch’s departure, and Weston McKennie’s arrival

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Americans in Europe, International, Premier League

The Premier League Club Is Focused on Avoiding Relegation

By Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press

In the 57th minute of Leeds United’s fixture against Nottingham Forest, Leeds United manager Jesse Marsch prepared to make a double substitution. He was in desperate need of a lifeline.

Tension was building in the match as Leeds found themselves trailing by a goal. The intense pressure to win also surrounded Jesse Marsch’s role as manager of the club.

Recent form for the Yorkshire club has faltered and the club has been winless in the Premier League since November 5th. Marsch decided to bring on new signing, Weston McKennie, and forward Cyrensio Summerville in exchange for Marc Roca and Luis Sinsterra. Marsch continued to make substitutions while his side pushed to salvage something from the match. His attempt proved futile as Brennan Johnson’s early goal ended up being the difference in a tightly contested match. 

When the final whistle blew, time was called on his duty as manager. He was only able to manage Weston McKennie for about 37 minutes, after being sacked the next day. Some have been left wondering why Marsch was terminated directly after the conclusion of a winter transfer window. He was left with little to no time to work with new signings. 

The club made two more signings along with McKennie in the winter transfer window. Max Wöber, was signed for £10 million from Austrian giants Red Bull Salzburg on January 3rd. Georginio Rutter became Leeds United’s most expensive signing ever on January 14th. The French forward broke the club’s transfer record after he was bought for £35.5 million from German club, TSG Hoffenheim. This huge financial investment indicates a commitment to giving Marsch the players he needed to succeed. Considering the significant dollar amount Leeds spent in the winter, some would argue why they would depart with Marsch. It could be viewed as a financial investment that would better serve the next appointed manager. 

Leeds United has been interested in McKennie for years. A report from The Athletic suggested the club has been interested in the 24-year-old since he was playing for Schalke in 2020. Marsch, along with others at the club have been fond admirers of McKennie for many reasons. Perhaps the most poignant quality that McKennie possesses is his demeanor on and off the pitch. On the pitch, there appears to be a level of fearlessness in his play at both the club and international level. He does not shy away from duels in the midfield and is a combative midfielder who works hard for the team. Off the pitch, he can be described as having a bubbly and infectious personality. During the final moments of him preparing to depart Italy, his jovial remark gave reporters a quick reminder that he was not well versed in speaking Italian.

“I don’t speak Italian that well,” McKennie said. “Thanks for the support. See you guys soon.”

As his two and a half year stay in Turin came to a close, his attempt to fully immerse himself in the language proved futile. McKennie seemed ready to leave the current situation as is. His now completed transfer, is a six-month loan to the Premier League outfit, Leeds United. Although he can always decide whether he wants to continue Italian lessons, McKennie’s decision to leave one of the biggest clubs in Italy at least for the short-term future has been sealed.

Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri spoke about the United States’ international departure from the club.

“Juventus’ transfer window was good,” Allegri said. “McKennie wanted to leave and he’s found a good option.”

It is an option that was a “dream come true” according to McKennie when he spoke to the media on Transfer Deadline Day. The “cherry on the cake” as he expressed joining two fellow USMNT internationals Tyler Adams, Brendan Aaronson, and an American manager, Jesse Marsch. The three USMNT players played together on the pitch for the first time when Leeds took on Manchester United on Wednesday, February 8th. Marsch was not able to stay long enough to see it come to fruition.

In 2007, Fulham had four Americans featuring on the pitch at once. Carlos Bocenegra, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, and loanee from Standard Liege, Oguchi Onyewu. There has never been more than four Americans playing together at once in the Premier League. 

The addition of Weston McKennie seemed to be a great fit for Marsch’s philosophy. The American manager wanted his team to press as a collective group with high intensity off the ball. Marsch typically used the 4-2-3-1 formation and in attack, the three attackers behind the strikers usually stayed quite narrow. The full backs stayed wide when the team was attacking. Fresh ideas from a new manager could see considerable changes to this style of play.

Mauricio Pochettino, Ange Posteclogou, and Carlos Coberán have all been rumored as possible candidates to be the next manager, according to the Mirror. The first of these three would be set for a return to the Premier League and many people can recall Pochettino’s tenure as Tottenham’s manager. Postecoglou has been influential in Celtic’s uptick in form since he took the job in June 2021. The Scottish giants were able to win the league championship over their rivals Rangers in the 2021/2022 season. Carlos Coberán has just signed a new contract with West Bromwich Albion until 2027 on Wednesday, February 8th. A potential move for Coberán will be ruled out.

Within the last 48 hours, Arne Slot, the manager of Dutch giants Feyenoord, has emerged as a name that has acquired buzz as a frontrunner for the position, according to The Independent.

Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani has confirmed the search for a manager will continue into the weekend. He gave a short response to a Twitter DM that ensures the interim manager Michael Skubala will be leading the team for their reverse fixture against Manchester United on Sunday, February 12th at Elland Road. 

Whichever manager is hired, it will be interesting to see if McKennie will feature heavily in their plans.

McKennie started in Leeds’s latest fixture in a 2-2 draw against Manchester United on February 8th. This was interim manager Michael Skubala first match in charge.

McKennie’s “aggressive” play style described by Marsch could be valuable to the next  permanent manager. The former Juventus midfielder featured in up to five different positions during his time in Italy. He played as a defensive midfielder, center midfielder, attacking midfielder, left midfielder, and right midfielder. His off the ball skills could be crucial in a position as a holding midfielder for Leeds United. 

Similarly, the runs McKennie makes off the ball when his team is attacking should benefit Leeds as well. He often makes late attacking runs into the box. Also, McKennie provides an aerial threat. He has thrived off scoring headers from whipped and lofted crosses into the box. His heading ability, late runs, and his height gives a target for attackers to pick out when crossing.

McKennie can continue to work on his tackling as he enters his prime. The technical side of his game can also be improved upon when he has the ball at his feet. His passing will be an instrumental part of his game in the Premier League. If he becomes a passer that can break opposing lines from the defensive midfielder position, he has the potential to have a profound impact on matches during his loan.

According to StatsBomb, his passing ranks in the 48th percentile of all midfielders for the 2022/23 season. Some of the other aspects of his play rank quite low in regards to percentile. 

In all fairness, this sample size is quite small. He has fought through numerous injuries and had to experience playing under a different manager. His statistics in previous seasons do look much better. Take a look at his first season at Juventus during the 2020/21 season when the club was managed by Andrea Pirlo.

The next manager may come in with several ideas regarding their philosophy and how the team should be structured. The previous managers of the club, Marcelo Bielsa and Marsch, have had philosophies centered around high pressing.

Leeds United has faced some issues with this high pressing style and could still face more as the season continues. Pressing has left Leeds susceptible to quick transitions and counter attackers. It will be a point of emphasis for the next manager to address this issue. 

In the Premier League, teams have the ability to ruthlessly trounce on defensive errors. If the philosophy does include pressing, there will need to be tactical adjustments that can correct the problems Leeds have been having.

Photo courtesy of Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images.

Dakwa holds a BS in Journalism from Elon University. He writes about European football for L.A. Soccer Press. Follow him at @JDakwa on Twitter.