Saturday, September 30, 2023

Jesse brings Marsch Madness to Premier League: Leeds overcome two-goal deficit to earn vital win at Wolves

WOLVERHAMPTON — Welcome to Marsch Madness, Premier League style. Five goals. A red card. Sixteen minutes of added time. A defense that was only ever a moment away from chaos, an attack that could burst into life at any moment. Even the NCAA tournament is going to have quite the task keeping up with the ludicrous drama that Leeds United delivered under their American head coach during Friday’s 3-2 come-from-behind win at Wolves.

At halftime in Molineux, you could be forgiven for fearing the worst for Jesse Marsch and his Leeds side. It was not just that they were two goals down to a Wolves side who have proven to be a nightmare for opposing sides to break down. They were entirely out of luck. The decent chances they had made early on, all spurned. Patrick Bamford had limped out of the game, just his fourth since September. Mateusz Klich hadn’t just injured himself, he’d done so early enough in the game that it was too much of a risk for Kalvin Phillips to replace him.

Even when fate opened a window for Marsch, it seemed determined to slam it down on his fingers. And so, he might have been given a man advantage for the final 37 minutes, but he was robbed of his final substitution and first-choice goalkeeper as Illan Meslier limped off following his clash with Raul Jimenez.

The truth of the Premier League, however, is that if you are good enough, you don’t need to be lucky. And Leeds were undoubtedly good enough. Their front four swarmed in the press and flew forward with the ball at their feet. From the sixth minute when Rodrigo flicked just wide at the near post, they were making high quality chances for each other. They ended the game with 2.7 expected goals, continuing the trend of at least three of their first four games. The sample size might still be tiny but after four games, Marsch’s side have 7.99 expected goals (xG) while opponents have 4.3. Bettering your opponent by the best part of one xG per game is the sort of thing that only Manchester City and Liverpool regularly do.

Of course, what those two teams also do is defend in a consistent fashion. That is still some way beyond Leeds, attempting to tweak Marcelo Bielsa’s style, so effective in getting this team back to the Premier League but often self-defeating this season. At times, it can feel like Marsch is attempting to reprogram his squad. In the build-up to Jonny’s opener, Pascal Struijk pushed up to get the ball because that is what he had been taught to do. The 22-year-old’s entire professional career had come under the tutelage of a manager whose methods are universally admired and infrequently adopted. 

Not for nothing did Jamie Carragher describe the defending for Wolves’ second as an “absolute shambles.” On this occasion, the problem was not that Leeds did not have enough players back, rather that they had too many, all sprinting toward the goal line with no one live to the cut back that ended with Francisco Trincao at the edge of the box.

It ought to have been enough to bury Leeds, who had never previously overcome a two-goal deficit in the Premier League. It might have been if Jimenez had not been given a second yellow for catching Meslier as they chased a ball down the right channel. It was, match winner Luke Ayling said, a “massive game-changer”.

Certainly without it, Leeds would not have been able to put the sheer pressure on Jose Sa’s goal that resulted in Jack Harrison and then Rodrigo netting in the space of three minutes. The visitors could stretch Wolves’ 10 men wider with a man advantage but still could not quite make it easy on themselves, Ayling hitting the post and seeing his shot on the rebound cleared off the line before Harrison eventually scrambled the ball home.

But even in numerical parity, Leeds had given plenty of difficulty to their hosts, who have had years to master their back three and robust defensive block where Marsch has had days. Certainly, with Bamford on the pitch, the visitors from Yorkshire might have taken the lead earlier on; if his injury is not as bad as he seemed to fear on the bench then there are plenty of goals in this team.

There were enough without him Friday night anyway. Harrison hung up a free kick from the right channel, Ayling doing just enough to keep the ball back in play. Wolves could have cleared but failed to do so in time as Ayling barged his way through the melee to thunder home the match winner.

That may be the moment to define their season. Leeds are now seven points clear of Watford in 18th, a healthy margin even if they have played a game more. Following on from their similarly dramatic victory over Norwich, momentum is on their side, but the numbers and statistics that these games have generated suggest that such fickle concepts might not be needed. Under their American coach, Leeds are delivering high-quality football. Premier League, beware the guys of Marsch.

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