Nightmare is closer than Jesse Marsch's Leeds United dream - Graham Smyth's Verdict at Arsenal

Competing for European football, challenging for titles and boasting the best academy on the continent are all part of the future Jesse Marsch can see for Leeds United.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 9th May 2022, 4:40 am

Like owner Andrea Radrizzani, the American has not been shy in vocalising what it is he can visualise for a club that undoubtedly retains enormous potential.

“In three years it looks like the best Academy in Europe, with young players that are playing in the first team consistently,” said Marsch.

“We’re competing for Europe consistently, again, with the process of developing players from the academy, into the first team. And that in the process, we’re also creating world-class players that can perform here but also can help us financially by selling them to the most massive clubs, for massive amounts of money. And then reinvesting that in the infrastructure of the club. Until we get to the point where five to 10 years from now, we can talk about really competing for titles and being one of the best teams in Europe. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Sign up to our Leeds United newsletter

You cannot argue about the size of Leeds United and just how big they could be, with the right management, recruitment and a fair wind. Elland Road is packed to the rafters every game with passionate, fully engaged fans who back the club with their hearts, souls and wallets. It is a giant of a footballing institution with a history to match its size.

But Marsch’s interview with Sky aired just before they shot themselves in both feet at Arsenal in a 2-1 loss that made it a very real possibility they will become a Championship club in the next fortnight.

The dream scenario of returning the Whites to a place they once occupied will seem farther away than ever, if the nightmare scenario of relegation returns them to the place they escaped two short years ago.

On a day that the Under-23s fell out of the Premier League 2 top flight without playing - a win for Chelsea’s youngsters relegating the Whites - the senior side took on the Champions League-chasing Gunners without captain Liam Cooper, Adam Forshaw, Patrick Bamford and Stuart Dallas. To be the club Leeds want to be, they must get to a place where squad depth is no longer a stick with which they beat themselves.

SEASON OVER - Luke Ayling's Leeds United season ended early with a red card at Arsenal for a shocking challenge on Gabriel Martinelli. Pic: Getty

Joe Gelhardt came into the starting line-up as Marsch delighted those who have been clamouring for the just-turned-20-year-old to get more of a chance, and onto the bench came 16-year-old Archie Gray.

Although Gelhardt was bought into the club having established himself as a tremendous prospect at Wigan Athletic, both he and Gray represent the kind of academy talent Leeds aspire to produce on a more regular basis.

Routine first-team involvement is some way ahead of Gray but Gelhardt has made things happen in numerous appearances this season and, even against the might of Manchester City, caused the kind of problems defenders hate. But Gelhardt wasn’t given a sniff at the Emirates because Leeds’ start to the game stank the place out and left them standing in a deep hole.

If this season had a theme, it would be self-inflicted pain and, within five minutes, they were a goal down, Luke Ayling’s pass across the area allowed Eddie Nketiah to gain ground on Illan Meslier and the keeper’s lackadaisical attempt to clear was charged down, into the net.

Five minutes later, Gabriel Martinelli beat Raphinha too easily, blew past Ayling and cut the ball back for Nketiah to turn home smartly.

Whatever gameplan Marsch had crafted was scattered in the wind along with Leeds’ hopes of taking much-needed points back to Yorkshire and their composure. There was no out-ball, no control and, as Arsenal runners steamed into pockets of space on the flanks, no need for Ayling to make things worse. Flying off his feet to wipe out Martinelli on the byline was only ever going to result in a red, even if it took Chris Kavanagh two goes at it. In their current predicament, it would be mind boggling for any player to make such a tackle but, from the stand-in captain, it was dereliction of duty.

The sight of another leader departing to play no part in the rest of the season, this time entirely through his own fault, was as grim as any Leeds fans have had to suffer in a torrid 2022. As Raphinha continued to remonstrate with Kavanagh even after seeing yellow for getting in the official’s face on three separate occasions, Leeds looked lost, rudderless and in serious danger.

Marsch went for a pragmatic substitution, Pascal Struijk replacing Gelhardt to create a five-man back line. But Arsenal went in for the kill, Martinelli getting in behind makeshift right-back Raphinha and playing the ball right across goal, off Meslier’s boot. Junior Firpo was all at sea against Bukayo Saka and dragged him down to give away a free-kick, Martin Odegaard’s fierce delivery touched onto the crossbar.

At the break, Marsch took off Mateusz Klich, who was on a yellow and simmering, and sent on Lewis Bate. The pattern of the game remained as before the interval though, Arsenal in complete control, probing for openings and getting the ball to Martinelli as often as humanly possible. His twisting and turning sent Raphinha to the ground on 55 minutes, giving him space to fire a shot at Meslier. His next trick was to steal in behind the Leeds defence and knock the ball over the bar, before slamming a shot wide.

Leeds’ first foray upfield didn’t come until the second half was 20 minutes old and, when it did, it yielded a corner and, somehow, a foothold. Kalvin Phillips’ delivery was flicked to the back post by Firpo and Diego Llorente popped up to hook it past Aaron Ramsdale and send an away end that had not given up or stopped singing into delirium.

The goal introduced nerves to a home support previously enjoying a comfortable afternoon and, as Jack Harrison twice menaced home players to win possession and take play towards the final third, the jitters increased.

Hope came in glimmers rather than waves for Leeds, brief moments in possession when Bate got on the ball or Arsenal gave it away in their own half, the game very much in Arsenal hands and yet still, incredibly, in the balance to the end.

That the side in fourth hadn’t managed to put the game to bed was bizarre in the extreme. So too was the sight of Robin Koch playing on the right wing and winning a 90th-minute corner. The sight of Harrison’s delivery hitting the first man was much more familiar territory. A late Rodrigo header that Ramsdale grabbed was the last threat to Arsenal’s victory as hopes of a miracle were snuffed out.

It will not take the supernatural to rescue Leeds from a fate that will set back their grand plans and dreams for future glory and European nights, but it will take something special. Marsch says he can see it, but must now make it a reality.