Psychology expert with Leeds United relegation experience addresses Jesse Marsch job and concerns

From day one at Leeds United, Jesse Marsch felt he had walked into a ‘psychological job’ and it took little time for him to become acutely aware of the tension gripping the squad.

By Graham Smyth
Friday, 20th May 2022, 4:40 am

A 3-0 beating at home by Aston Villa, on a night when supporters aired Marcelo Bielsa chants and expressed anger in the direction of the club’s decision makers, allowed Marsch to pick up on the weight of expectation and pressure bearing down on his players.

“I underestimated the stress of the moment from the players’ perspective,” he said.

The mood lightened a little during the five-game unbeaten run that followed, but the loss of senior leaders to injuries and red cards, along with three-straight defeats that threatened to become four against Brighton, have left Leeds in not only genuine peril but a state of disbelief.

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OUT OF HIS HANDS: Leeds United head coach Jesse Marsch whose side's bid for Premier League survival now rests with Burnley, even if the Whites get a result at Brentford on the final day. Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images.

Marsch admitted as such after a half-time team talk that tried to address his concern over the players’ mindsets.

“I could still see the looks on some of their faces at half-time that we weren’t 100 per cent believing that we could do it,” he said after the game.

“The last thing I said, when I looked in all their eyes, was ‘we can have no doubts, we need to make a couple of adjustments but we have to have zero doubts and push’.”

Leeds did push, grabbed a vital point in stoppage time and can at least carry whatever momentum that gave them into the final weekend of relegation-deciding fixtures.

Last night they dropped back into the bottom three, as Burnley’s 1-1 draw at Aston Villa took them above the Whites on goal difference.

Relegation is between these two now, as Everton produced a sensational home comeback to recover from 2-0 down to defeat Crystal Palace 3-2.

Clinical sports psychotherapist Gary Bloom, who commentated on the Whites’ 1982 final-day relegation from the top flight, says Marsch arrived at Leeds knowing exactly how he wanted to lift the players.

On the face of it, however, his approachable, arm-around-the-shoulder style has come as a culture-shock at Thorp Arch and will need time to become the norm for the squad.

“I’ve got the impression that he’s believed it,” Bloom told the YEP.

“He’s come in with a very clear philosophy and psychological brief.

"I’m on the outside but it seems to me that sort of emotional intelligence thing was not there at all under Marcelo Bielsa and, suddenly, you’ve gone from zero on the dial to 100 on the dial.

“If I was working in those circumstances, I would be thinking, well, that’s a bit different, and it would take a while to get somewhere between zero and 100.

"I think there’s going to be, inevitably, some adaptation time of, how you deal with that stuff?”

Helping the players adjust fully to a new management style is not the focus this week, though.

All eyes and every ounce of energy is on Brentford, away.

Marsch simply has to produce a performance from what is undeniably a mentally exhausted and fragile squad and finding a way to instil calm so the players can operate free from fear and stress will be key.

Bloom, Oxford United’s sports performance psychotherapist, advises delegation of responsibility to the senior players still left standing and available.

“The truth is that every player is different and every player will have key things that will relax them and put them in a good frame of mind,” he said.

“I don’t know if Marsch has done this.

"But I’ve worked with leadership teams inside sports teams, whereby you take three or four, you realistically shouldn’t be taking any more than four, and ask them to be leaders on the pitch because the noise and excitement on Sunday, it’s going to be pretty loud.

“Normally that is Dallas, Cooper, Ayling, Forshaw, Bamford. How many leaders have you got on the pitch? I would probably just put my attention on this at the moment.

"Gathering the four most senior players and saying look, we need a leadership group from within this team. Even for one game only.

"If it goes pear shaped on Sunday, you’re going to have to lift the team.

"With my help, you’ve got to sort out on the pitch.

"I think far too many times in most football clubs, people look to the manager when they go a goal down.

"You don’t see Liverpool players looking at Klopp and saying ‘what are we going to do now?’”

Marsch must also focus his players solely on the process of playing well enough to win, so they ignore the result and its obvious, yet potentially terrifying consequences.

“The sport psychology of it would be to forget about the outcome and concentrate on the process,” Bloom told the YEP.

“What I mean by that is, if you played golf, concentrate on the ball and forget about the score. I think we, as Leeds fans, are worried about the score.

“We’re all worried about where we’re going to be next season.

"But actually, if we go back to basics and concentrate on the football, and actually the tactical implication of what Marsch is trying to do, and forget about the fear, that’s the way that the sports psychologists of us would say you have to do it, because the anxiety and fear comes from worrying about the outcome.

“If you play any sport, if you worry about what’s going to happen at the end of the race or game, you’re screwed. You have to play each shot.

"And the more we concentrate on Brentford and forget about the possible outcome, the better chance we’ve got of staying up.

“Then you have the whole issue about things outside our control, so process above results is always going to be the winner.”

A Leeds fan, Bloom has concerns over the psychological state evidenced by Luke Ayling and Daniel James’ red cards, and the psychological messages sent by Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips post-game actions last Sunday, which could have been interpreted as emotional goodbyes.

No-one is in any doubt that both men are highly likely to depart should Leeds go down - Raphinha almost regardless of Sunday’s outcome - but there’s a huge game still to come.

As for the result of that fixture, Bloom is torn between what his head and his heart are telling him.

“My heart is obviously saying I want them to stay up and my head says they’ll probably go down,” he said.

“There’s too many things - if we had a full-strength XI and we had Bamford, Ayling, Dallas and one or two others I think we’d get a result at Brentford.

Football is a funny game, that’s why we all love covering it and talking about it and working in it.

"But, if you were to look at this in a purely cognitive way, I think we’d be looking at relegation.

"Looking at it in a Leeds United Marching on Together way, we’ll do it.”