Leeds United's Jesse Marsch hallmarks and question marks - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Cagliari rout

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Leeds United brought the curtain down on their pre-season friendlies in the most emphatic style with a 6-2 victory over Cagliari.

A Rodrigo hat-trick, 90 minutes and two goals for Patrick Bamford and a trio of assists for Brenden Aaronson provided the highlights, if not the answers to all the questions over Jesse Marsch's team. Those will come in time, with the American and his men now staring at nothing but the 2022/23 Premier League proving ground.

Pre-season games always have at least one incongruous element to them, whether that's trialists, an entire XI worth of changes or exotic opposition, but Leeds' bench provided it at Elland Road.

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A Saturday run-out against Manchester City Under-21s for Joe Gelhardt and what you'd consider to be the guts of the bench for the Premier League opener - left Marsch with an odd bunch of substitutes that included Ian Poveda and Helder Costa.

It's no secret that both wingers are considered surplus to requirements and so their presence took on makeweight status.

They were joined by Mateusz Klich, for whom a starting place looked like an uphill battle due to the summer recruitment even before Marsch spoke about the Pole's Leeds future with such uncertainty after the game.

It wasn't quite the dugout of the damned, though. Under-21s signing Sonny Perkins and some of his young team-mates made up the numbers. Keenan Carole, son of ex-Whites winger Seb and a product of the youth system, sat next to Morten Spencer, Mateo Joseph and Harry Christy, who served as Marsch's third goalkeeper in Australia.

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None, as it turned out, would be needed as Marsch gave 90 minutes to the XI expected to take to the pitch against Wolves for the opener.

EXCLAMATION MARK - There are question marks about this Leeds United side and Jesse Marsch but they finished pre-season in emphatic style with a 6-2 win over Cagliari. Pic: Bruce RollinsonEXCLAMATION MARK - There are question marks about this Leeds United side and Jesse Marsch but they finished pre-season in emphatic style with a 6-2 win over Cagliari. Pic: Bruce Rollinson
EXCLAMATION MARK - There are question marks about this Leeds United side and Jesse Marsch but they finished pre-season in emphatic style with a 6-2 win over Cagliari. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

Marsch and his team are still very much an unknown quantity when it comes to this season's top flight but there are already hallmarks to be noted. They play quickly, they get the ball wide to marauding full-backs and they press with an intensity. The players have an air of certainty about where they need to be and what they need to do, although counter attacks have proved a problem defensively throughout the last few weeks.

In possession, even in the first few minutes, the intention to play heavily to Rasmus Kristensen and his strengths was clear against Cagliari. The Dane was involved in most of Leeds' promising early moments and, although his passing wasn't always pinpoint accurate, his athleticism and willingness to run deep into the final third caused issues for Cagliari.

The hosts' press did too, leading to unexpected moments of possession in the Italians' half and the first-half chances - a tame Patrick Bamford shot and a Rodrigo ball that almost released the underlapping Kristensen.

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It soon became pure domination from Leeds, against a side relegated from Serie A last season, albeit without creating too much.

Cagliari themselves created nothing of note until the midway point of the half, some loose play from Marc Roca in the opposition half almost punished by Zito Luvumbo, who left Robin Koch for dead and got to the area to force Illan Meslier into a smart stop.

Leeds responded with a counter of their own, Patrick Bamford releasing Rodrigo who dithered in the area.

The Spaniard was much sharper the next time he received possession in the box, taking Kristensen's pass and teeing up Roca whose sidefoot shot was saved easily saved. A nice pass from Rodrigo gave Bamford half a sniff yet under pressure the striker couldn't get enough purchase on his shot to trouble Boris Radunovic.

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For his next trick, Rodrigo found the net. Bamford touched Kristensen's diagonal ball into Rodrigo, he shaped to shoot for the far corner, paused and whipped it into the near post area, giving Radunovic no chance.

Another curler, this time from distance, almost made it 2-0 but the keeper got a hand to that one as Leeds ended the half completely in control.

They took an even tighter grip on the game three minutes after the break, Rodrigo the main man again.

He dinked a ball into Harrison in the area, made a run to get it back and although he tried to feed Bamford right in front of goal, the pass hit Radunovic and went in.

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The £27m move from Valencia in 2020 made him Leeds’ record signing but due to injuries, Covid and form he has never consistently hit the heights such a transfer promises and there have been times over the past two years when a departure would have felt almost like a kindness. Under Marsch, Rodrigo flickered to life last season and although he could not maintain it consistently, there is evidently still a place for him in this Leeds squad. Just how big a part will he play this season as Bamford, Gelhardt and a new frontman jostle for minutes, while Harrison, Aaronson, Luis Sinisterra and Daniel James compete to support them?

Bamford is another who has taken on even more significance after an almost entirely injury-ravaged last campaign and as the club continue to search for another striker. He had to wait only a matter of seconds after Rodrigo’s goal to get his. Brenden Aaronson played him in, with a wonderful through ball and a little help from a clumsy centre-half, so he could go one-on-one with the keeper and finish with aplomb.

Pre-season or not, Bamford is relishing every minute on the pitch this summer and the goal visibly meant the world to him after such a rancid 2021/22.

The wind was only taken out of Leeds' sails by the worrying sight of Kristensen down and bleeding after a clash of heads with Adam Obert. While the Cagliari man departed, Kristensen swaggered on. Predictions about this Leeds team are difficult to make but the Denmark international will, without doubt, be a fan favourite at Elland Road.

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Leeds were quickly back into their stride and creating chances.

Roca whacked a shot into the stand from a quickly-taken corner, another went to the back post where Diego Llorente blazed over, Rodrigo headed a third just past the post and then slotted Bamford through the middle, only for a defender to deny him at the last second.

The fly in the ointment was a 66th-minute goal from Gianluca Lapadula, who raced in behind Llorente to take Luvumbo's pass and dink the ball over Meslier.

That would have irked Marsch enough had it not been joined by a second fly two minutes later, Cagliari doing to Leeds what others have done this summer and profiting on the counter, Luvumbo's pace once again an issue before he blitzed the net with a terrific strike.Had the striker been equally cool a minute later bang in front, the ointment would have been infested. Can Marsch prevent the main pre-season problem from plaguing Leeds in the season proper?

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Bamford was on hand, though, with a fourth goal that acted as a salve for a painful few minutes. He arrived at the near post to slam home Harrison's pass after the winger had jinked his way to the byline. Newcastle United’s transfer interest may remain but the winger, like Rodrigo and Bamford, is clearly central to Marsch’s plans and not someone you would think Leeds can afford to lose at this point in the window. When he spoke with surprising uncertainty after the Villa game in Brisbane it raised eyebrows and questions, but he has looked committed. Would he turn down a late-window big-money move?

Leeds coasted to the finish.

Bamford played Aaronson into the area so he could put Rodrigo's hat-trick on a plate and the little American whipped in a near-post free-kick for Koch to head in the sixth.

Serie B opposition it might have been but they still had to be beaten and Leeds did so, with an exclamation mark.

Question marks are still there and will be until Marsch’s system and his set-up has had time to fully bed in with this squad, which of course is still to be strengthened in the window.

But next up, in just five days, comes the curtain raiser against Wolves. That will be the real thing. Then we will start to get some answers.

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