Jesse Marsch at Leeds: Don’t rely on a transition game if your team can’t defend them


In life, transitional periods put us under pressure for a certain period of time. Moving from one state or condition to another can present difficulties and, if you aren’t prepared, it might hit you hard. Whether it’s transitioning from an old job to a new one, moving houses, or maybe a different head coach at your football club.

When Jesse Marsch joined Leeds United, the American head coach seemed to be a natural fit considering Leeds’ style of play under Marcelo Bielsa. Differences in the approach meant moving away from strict man-marking, less dependence on width on the ball and verticality in attacking, but Leeds maintained their focus on intensity.

This season, Leeds have been the most aggressive pressing team in the Premier League, and the speed of their attacks has been electric. In terms of opposition passes per defensive action (PPDA), they allow their opponents only 9.6 passes on average before engaging them, which puts them top of the charts in this category. Direct speed, which measures how quickly a team progresses up the field, has them fourth in the league with 1.5 metres moved up the pitch per second. The graph below shows the styles of each Premier League team this season, charting their direct speed against their passes per sequence.

The transition from Bielsa to Marsch was smooth, but ironically transitions on the field have been the problem for Leeds this season. A couple of weeks short of a year into Marsch’s reign as Leeds’ head coach, he was sacked after failing to win in his last seven league games, dropping the club closer to the relegation zone. They are 17th in the table, level on points with Everton in 18th, but with a game in hand.

Marsch has been rueing his side’s missed chances this season, and Leeds have been creating plenty of them, especially on offensive transitions.

But what happens when Leeds don’t finish their chances is that the opposition can score theirs, then drop deeper into a low block where Marsch team’s attacking patterns on the ball aren’t that effective. That was the case in the second half against Nottingham Forest when Steve Cooper moved to a 4-4-2 shape at half-time, and introduced Serge Aurier to completely nullify Wilfried Gnonto, who had been Leeds’ main threat in the first half.

A winning game state provides a better chance to attack the opponent on the transition once they lose the ball, but Leeds have rarely been ahead this season. They have spent nearly a third of their Premier League minutes in a losing situation in 2022-23 and a joint-lowest (with Southampton) 11 per cent of their minutes in a winning position.

All those missed chances on offensive transitions could have changed things, but Leeds were still conceding chances on defensive transitions. At times, they created chances for their opponent by needlessly losing the ball.

In their game against West Ham United on January 4, Brenden Aaronson assisted Gianluca Scamacca by wrongly passing the ball to the West Ham forward…

… who then scored to put Leeds on the back foot early in the second half.

Another mistake on the ball practically finished the game against Manchester City on December 28. After conceding only one goal in the first half, despite City’s numerous chances on the transition, Liam Cooper’s pass to his team-mate Robin Koch was intercepted by Jack Grealish

… and he set Erling Haaland up for a simple finish to score City’s second goal.

Losing the ball in normal possession phases has created free transitions for the opponents. Rodrigo’s switch of play towards Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka led to Arsenal’s winner on October 16, Marc Roca’s loss of possession in his own half led to Leicester City’s opener four days later, while Brentford’s pressing on September 3 forced Diego Llorente into an error that Yoane Wissa capitalised on to score Brentford’s fifth goal in a 5-2 win.

When Leeds lose the ball in any part of the pitch, it feels like a formal invitation to attack their goal. However, this isn’t only limited to individual mistakes, Leeds’ organisation after losing the ball in normal possession phases or after their own offensive transitions is poor. They have conceded the fifth-most expected goals (xG) from fast breaks in the Premier League this season (a fast break is defined by Opta as an attempt created after the defensive team quickly turns defence into attack, after winning the ball in their own half.)

In the recent game against City, Leeds’ narrow 4-3-3 shape without the ball was solid but when they lost the ball, City took advantage on the transition before Leeds could get back into their defensive shape. Here, as Nathan Ake wins the ball back for City, Kevin De Bruyne moves away from Marc Roca…

… into vast space, where Ilkay Gundogan finds him with a pass to start an offensive transition that leads to City’s first goal.

Away to Aston Villa on January 13, a game in which Leeds created enough to score more than one goal, they got caught out on two transitions. For the first goal, which was scored in the third minute, Villa’s counter-attack stems from a Leeds corner as Ashley Young finds Boubacar Kamara in acres of space…

.. .and the French midfielder has time on the ball to find Leon Bailey out wide, who scores past Illan Meslier.

The second comes from Leeds’ own offensive transition. After Tyler Adams wins the ball in the centre of the pitch, Leeds’ transition ends quickly with an interception from Young and Villa’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez, starts the quick attack that leads to the goal.

This was exactly the same away to Brentford before the World Cup. Here, as Leeds are trying to get back into the game, they lose the ball but counter-press to get it back quickly…

…Tyler Adams picks up the ball and puts Luis Sinisterra in a goalscoring situation…

… but the winger shoots straight at David Raya, and the Brentford goalkeeper immediately starts the transition before Leeds can get back to their defensive shape.

A common situation throughout the season, this one wasn’t helped by Koch and Llorente’s failure to intercept Mathias Jensen’s pass into Keane Lewis-Potter.

Koch’s movement also means that Ivan Toney is free…

… so when Meslier’s attempt to sweep the ball falls to Toney, the English striker can chip the ball into the empty net.

Twelve out of the 34 goals Leeds have conceded this season in the Premier League came on defensive transitions after losing the ball high up the pitch or needlessly giving it away.

For a team that depended heavily on creating chances through offensive transitions after winning the ball back, their defending in these situations after losing the ball was questionable. This style of play requires more protection on defensive transitions because the fast and direct attacks will invariably be reciprocated with fast and direct attacks by the opposition as well.

Marsch’s departure means that Leeds are entering another transition period off the field. His replacement should make sure they’re more alert to them on the field too.