Leeds United board and Jesse Marsch on collision course - Graham Smyth's Nottingham Forest Verdict
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That 2-0 defeat felt damaging, given the increasingly panicky mood around Marcelo Bielsa's promotion chasers at the time and Ayling's post-match demeanour did little to dispel the notion that the side were feeling it too. Ultimately it was but a bump in the road on the way to the promised land.
Three days shy of that game's third anniversary it was Jesse Marsch's face that told you everything you need to know about Leeds right now. Another game from which positives but not points could be plucked was meandering to its conclusion when the head coach, hands on hips, swung a half-hearted kick at an empty bottle.
His side, so dominant in a first half that ended 1-0 to Forest, hit their heads against a red brick wall time and time again in a second half that ended with no further scoring. Bereft of ideas, a defeat felt more and more inevitable as the minutes ticked away. At full-time, as supporters in the away end chanted for his removal, Marsch looked bereft of energy.
Patience, in the fanbase at least, is as thin as the distance between Leeds and the drop zone. Only goal difference keeps their chin above water and 18th-placed Everton. Those with anything left in their glass might point to the game in hand, but when that game comes at Old Trafford against a Manchester United with only one home league defeat all season, the glass could soon be drained entirely.
Marsch, while accepting the external frustration and criticism, is still talking about belief, about good work and performances that deserve more. Leeds backed him in the window, which was tacit confirmation of the belief at boardroom level that he is still their man. There might well be a resolution to give him more time to turn things around, more time to let the new signings make their mark and a lingering hope, a belief even that something better is around the corner.
But two wins in 17 league games, 17th position and three points from the bottom is where Leeds find themselves right now and there are no guarantees that the going will get any smoother. A Manchester United double header is as perilous a week as any under-fire manager could conjure up in a fever dream and beyond that lie Everton and Southampton, undeniably must-win fixtures. If the board aren't presently seeing a fork in the road when it comes to Marsch, they soon will because football presents you with chances to change tack until, all of a sudden, it does not.
What supporters see is a team who can produce moments and not one who can produce wins, so when the money spent on this side is taken into consideration, an argument that this season is in any way good enough soon crumbles.
Even with Rodrigo out for two months, Marsch should have enough firepower to pick up the required points to stay ahead of the Premier League's worst three teams. The transfer window handed him further recruitments, the club racking up a pretty steep bill to bolster his squad options. Yet, at Forest, as has been the case elsewhere this season, a defensive error left them fighting an uphill battle and handed an opponent the opportunity to sit in a low block. And that was that.
The home side's new man Keylor Navas, one of 30 to have signed since last summer began, denied Leeds and Luis Sinisterra the dream start, saving from the winger after he stole in and prodded goalwards.
Leeds were in full control for 13 minutes, the back line stepping forward to take away any Forest avenues of attack, the ball being kept in the home half and everything looking very solid. But a foul by Pascal Struijk on Brennan Johnson on the touchline led to the same two players combining for the winner. Struijk's poor header teed up Johnson perfectly and with no one sufficiently tracking his movement, he was able to rattle in a drive from the edge of the box.
After that the story was relatively straightforward. Leeds resumed control, Willy Gnonto played brilliantly and so too did Navas. Everything good for Leeds went down the left and through the little Italian. He squared for Sinisterra, who blazed over from right in front. He picked out Patrick Bamford, who miskicked completely, allowing Luke Ayling to have a crack that Navas palmed clear. The keeper did the same to an Ayling header and a Gnonto shot, Forest giving up big chances but not goals as the half ended 1-0.
Once Steve Cooper threw up the red wall at the interval, Leeds simply ran into it over and over again. The ball to Gnonto was not the same option, because with Forest so deep and compact and Serge Aurier on at the break to do a better job on the winger than Neco Williams had, the Leeds man couldn't find the freedom to create.
Herein lay the story of the second half. One manager was able to make changes, both in tactics and personnel, that changed the pattern of the game, at least in terms of the chances Leeds were able to create. The other manager could not respond. New boy Weston McKennie came on for Marc Roca. Crysencio Summerville came on for Sinisterra. Junior Firpo came on for Struijk. Georginio Rutter for Bamford. Sam Greenwood for Jack Harrison. And nothing changed.
If anything, with Roca off the pitch Leeds looked less composed in possession and a potent attacking line-up looked less and less capable of making a breakthrough.
Just like at Crystal Palace, when Patrick Vieria's tactical shift took the game away from Leeds completely, the result began to take on inevitability long before the final whistle. Belief visibly ebbed from Marsch's body language as attacks broke like waves on the red rocks and chants from the away end at full-time were salt in a fresh wound.
Where to now? Marsch was turning his focus to Old Trafford within minutes of full-time in Nottingham, evidently believing he will be given that game, at least, by the board. Whatever their preferred direction of travel, though, they can be in no doubt that a great swathe of the fanbase is no longer on board. Perhaps Marsch can still lead this club to a better place but almost a year into his tenure they're not where they need to be and unless results change, and soon, he and the Elland Road hierarchy will find themselves on a collision course.