Football Features

Does Burnley relegation vindicate Leeds’ decision to replace Marcelo Bielsa with Jesse Marsch?

By Harry Edwards

Published: 18:38, 22 May 2022

On a thrilling final day of the 2021/22 Premier League season, Leeds United secured their safety thanks to a 2-1 win over Brentford.

Jesse Marsch’s side started the day in the relegation zone, level on points with Burnley but with a significantly lower goal difference. The Yorkshire side needed to better Burnley’s result to avoid a return to the Championship and that’s exactly what they did.

Goals from Raphinha and Jack Harrison secured a 2-1 win for Leeds against Brentford, who had equalised through Sergi Canos to make for a nervy end, sending the travelling fans into raptures at the final whistle. At the same time, Burnley went 2-1 down at Newcastle United, calling time on their spell in the Premier League.

For Leeds it was vindication for their call to sack Marcelo Bielsa, replacing him with Jesse Marsch at the start of March.

Tighter at the back

The biggest reason for Leeds staying in the Premier League was the improvements that Marsch made to their defending. During his time at Leeds, Bielsa was very much attack first and worry about the defending later, and it his first Premier League season it worked well enough especially against the teams on their level.

But it didn’t work in 2021/22. Affected by injuries to key players early in the campaign, Leeds were gifting chances to their opponents, showing less resistance than a wet single ply tissue. Across Bielsa’s 26 matches in charge in the Premier League this season, Leeds averaged 2.13 Expected Goals Against per game, the second-worst record in the division. The only team worse than Leeds were Norwich City and there was only 0.04 in it.

When Bielsa was sacked at the start of March, Leeds were just two points lear of the relegation zone and staring the Championship in the face. And things didn’t look to positive after Marsch’s first two games as they lost 1-0 and 3-0 to Leicester and Aston Villa, unable to stop the rot.

But Marsch was building something, changing their system while juggling the relegation battle, and ultimately it paid off. Leeds went unbeaten in their next five matches, including three key wins (two against fellow relegation battlers Norwich and Watford) to put them on the brink. The only reason Leeds went into the final day in the relegation zone is because they had to face Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea back-to-back-to-back – a horrible run at any point in the season for any side.

Even including those games, though, Leeds were better defensively. Under Marsch in the league, Leeds averaged just 1.61 xGA per game, the 12th best record in the Premier League during that run. Of course, 12th doesn’t sound great, but in relation to the team and where they were it shows just how Marsch changed things.

If it weren’t for that run of fixtures, Leeds probably wouldn’t have needed their heroics on the final day.

More Champions League content (18+ only, Ts&Cs apply):

Still promising attack

The improvements in defence haven’t come with a massive drop in attack either.

Since Marsch took charge, Leeds have averaged 1.29 xG per game in the Premier League, again the 12th best in the division during that time. They scored three goals in one game on two occasions, against Watford and Wolves, and hit two in a further two including the final win over Brentford.

Marsch also had players step up. Jack Harrison netted four goals in 12 games under the American, as many as he had managed in 23 during Bielsa’s reign in the first part of of the season. Rodrigo also equalled his tally under Bielsa (three goals) in seven fewer matches. The reliance on Raphinha was lessened, though it was he who scored the penalty to start their win over Brentford on the final day.

It’s worth noting that they did slightly regress in xG from Bielsa, averaging 1.39 xG per game in the Premier League under the Argentine this season, but it wasn’t too significant or big enough to cause any problems.

A risk worth taking

All in all, it was a risk worth taking for Leeds. But the same couldn’t be said for Burnley. Just over a month ago the Clarets made the big call of sacking Sean Dyche to try and steer themselves to safety, replacing the legendary boss with Mike Jackson.

After a few games it appeared to be an excellent call as Burnley climbed closer to safety but three defeats and one draw from their final four games proved costly. And Roy Keane blasted the club for their decision.

“Sean Dyche would have done a good job if he was given the opportunity until the end of the season,” Keane told Sky Sports.

“He’s been there, he’s done it, him and his staff. And when he left people were saying, ‘oh there’s been a reaction, there’s been a reset’. Rubbish.

“They’ve paid a heavy price for it. They should have stuck with Sean Dyche. Proven manager, great quality, done a brilliant job. No sympathy for Burnley.”