Eye-rolling, memes and mockery of Jesse Marsch ploy but Leeds United boss can have last laugh

Leeds United will run out at Elland Road to face Chelsea tonight with the words of Mahatma Gandhi ringing in their ears.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 11th May 2022, 4:40 am

‘Play each game as if it were your last’ he once said. Actually the exact wording he favoured was ‘live as if you were to die tomorrow’ but the idea is the same.

Both he and Mother Teresa are among the sages quoted by Jesse Marsch as he seeks to inspire the Whites to Premier League safety. The revelation that he is plucking motivation from historical figures and famous American sporting stories was always going to send a good number of eyes rolling. There are Leeds fans for whom his positivity and ability to generate soundbites has grated, although their patience was already running dangerously thin for anything other than goals and results and the mood of a fanbase will never be helped by the slip into the relegation zone.

Marsch is also discovering, as Marcelo Bielsa did before him, that you cannot win in a press conference. Had he declined to give details, when asked, of the source material for some of his team and individual talks, it might well have been the story. By getting into it, he risked the kind of mockery that followed the post-game huddle on the pitch at Leicester City or his crowd conducting after the 4-0 Manchester City defeat.

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Some might say that talking up the club’s prospects of European football or namechecking your favourite gurus isn’t the wisest of tacks to take in stormy seas and this correspondent would be one of them. You could picture the memes being painstakingly pieced together even as Marsch was speaking on Thursday. But it’s also worth saying that English football doesn’t have a huge level of tolerance for anything to which the label ‘different’ can be attached. Even if the admittedly odd sight of him walking towards the tunnel with his arms aloft after such a big loss stuck in your craw, Marsch cannot be expected to apologise for who he is.

In the same way, Bielsa should never have been made to feel sorry for not conducting his press conferences in English or for naming his team two days before a game.

Some ribbing is to be expected - Marsch anticipated it and addressed the most likely focus of the teasing with his Ted Lasso discussion during his Thorp Arch unveiling – and is probably healthy in a sport that takes itself, its traditions and its trivialities so seriously. Mickey-taking is as big a part of the game as any other and, often, just as enjoyable.

Marsch has enjoyed a few wry laughs himself along the way since arriving at Leeds, either in the face of absurd difficulty or at his own expense – on Thursday he chuckled as for the second time in successive pre-game press conferences he voiced his belief that Liam Cooper would be available for selection.

RELENTLESSLY POSITIVE - Jesse Marsch says Leeds United need positivity and togetherness as he tries to steer them out of relegation trouble. Pic: Getty

There might be something to be said for keeping things as light as humanly possible as dark clouds gather, if only for the players’ benefit, because this is not an easy period in which to play for Leeds.

It’s a stressful time, the stakes could not be higher for the club or for individuals who could be playing their last Premier League games in Leeds colours, or indeed in any colours.

Yes, it’s all very serious and the relegation threat is by all accounts being treated with the according gravitas but if you didn’t laugh, or at least crack a smile now and again, you’d probably cry. That’s one of the reasons why Marsch appears to be so chipper, all the time. It might be who he is but it’s also what he feels is needed.

“The players are doing well, the moments after the disappointment in the last two games, it’s obviously important for me to manage that effectively, to stay positive with them, to be encouraging with them to let them know that this is, again, not just about one match or two matches or three matches that that we continue to stay strong and that we fight until the very end and that we stay clear till the very end,” he said on Thursday.

Staying strong is one of his favourite phrases at present. He has a number of stock sayings that crop up time and time again, some of which veer close to management speak, although he is, of course, a manager. But what does staying strong really look like, on the pitch?

“It’s about being aggressive against the ball, about wanting the ball, about wanting to be in this moment, about knowing that we’re good, about knowing that we’re stronger together with our tactics with our group mentality, that those are the things that will reward us in the moment,” he said.

“I can say that the work on the pitch has got clearer and clearer and understanding of our principles and how we want to play has gotten better every week, every day. And then it’s about now in a stressful situation and then against very good opponents in the stadium to execute. Right, that's what it comes down to: clarity of execution, what we want the team to look like.”

This is what it all boils down to for Leeds United right now – a manager creating a plan that will work and a team grasping, then implementing it sufficiently to take more points than Burnley over the final three games. It's really very simple and as Leonardo da Vinci put it: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

If the wisdom of Gandhi helps Kalvin Phillips to clear his mind of anything but the pressing need to press, or if Daniel James gets a kick out of Mother Teresa’s wisdom and kicks into a higher gear against Chelsea, then great. But it’s how convincing Marsch is when he tells his players how they can get a result, and what they do next, that matters. If his words inspire a win tonight, he can have the last laugh.