After seven games without a win, Leeds manager Jesse Marsch really needed a big performance against Fulham. He did not get one.
Is this how the brief and tempestuous relationship between Leeds United and Jesse Marsch ends, then? Marsch arrived at Elland Road with the club under a cloud as a result of the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa, and that relationship between the manager and the fans meant that Marsch, fresh from the process-heavy environment of the Red Bull stable, was certainly a change of direction for the club.
But while he was able to keep them in the Premier League last season – just – this season has seen little improvement. Seven successive games without a win had led to a familiar cloud descending over Elland Road again, and there was clear recognition of this in Marsch’s decision to make six changes from the team that was so well beaten at Leicester City in the week, the sort of decision that makes you wonder, ‘do they have the strength in depth for such widespread changes?’
And Fulham arrived there in fairly rude form, in the top half of the Premier League and coming off the back of their most comprehensive win of the season, so far, a 3-0 win against Aston Villa which was sufficient to persuade their opponents to offload their manager within a couple of hours of the full-time whistle blowing at Craven Cottage.
The live league tables, which update with every goal scored, only turned the tension up inside the stadium early on, with goals for Leicester City and Aston Villa dropping Leeds into the relegation places in the live league table within ten minutes of the kick-off. Meanwhile, that familiar skittish feeling that has so regularly surrounded Marsch’s Leeds returned when Harrison Reed broke clear on the right for Fulham and had his shot cleared off the line by Marc Roca.
The familiarity of it all was evident in the nature of the two first half goals. Brenden Aaronson has been one of the brighter sparks in the Leeds team so far this season, and it was his pass which stretched the Fulham defence and allowed Jack Harrison clear sight of the Fulham goal. His shot was blocked by a defender, but the ball looped up for Rodrigo to head in from close range.
When a team in the sort of position in which Leeds find themselves take the lead, they need to bed in and hold onto it, but six minutes later Fulham’s equaliser was just too easy, a corner from Andreas Pereira flicked in by Alexandar Mitrovic at the near post with the Leeds defence looking completely static. Leeds had another let-off shortly after conceding, when a break through the centre led to a fine diving save from Meslier.
That the defining characteristic of Marsch’s Leeds team is that defensive brittleness speaks volumes for their current league position. Fulham weren’t particularly extravagant in their attacking movements, but every time they did so they looked dangerous. There were too many gaps for them to expand into in attacking positions, and even the Leeds defence passing the ball around amongst themelves under relatively little pressure felt as though it came with an uncomfortable amount of jeopardy.
As the second half progressed, the noise inside Elland Road started to reach fever pitch levels. There is a wall of sound that seems almost unique to this venue, as though the simultaneous screaming of 36,000 people might will the ball into the back of the opposition net, but it wasn’t to be.
Patrick Bamford feels increasingly like an appopriate mascot for the state of Leeds at the moment. Bamford hadn’t scored for Leeds since December last year, and his last couple of years have been just about ruined by injury. His introduction with twenty minutes of the second half played lifted the crowd noise another notch. Within a couple of minutes of his introduction he had a shot well saved by Bernd Leno, but again it was a missed opportunity that Jesse Marsch would soon come to regret.
Fulham’s second goal came about from a terrible corner for which the Leeds defence which they failed to clear, allowing Bobby De Cordova-Reid a free header to score. Their third came when Harrison Reed was allowed to wriggle his way through three Leeds defenders with little hint of a challenge before rolling the ball back for Willian to convert. The atmosphere inside Elland Road had already started to sour with the second goal and it turned toxic with the third, with coins being thrown onto the pitch.
As Leeds continued to pour forward in the increasingly futile-looking pursuit of a goal to try and give themselves some sort of route back into the match the stands behind them started to empty. Considering the reaction of those who did stay inside the ground to offer the players and staff their assessment of what they’d just seen. A scrambled injury-time goal from Crysencio Summerville, whose relative effervescence was just about the only highlight of their afternoon, reduced the deficit back to one, but it was far too little, and far too late.
Throughout the latter stages of the match, the refrain of ‘sack the board’ had started to drift across Elland Road, and it’s this that gave the closing stages of the game that feeling of closure. When the attention of angry supporters extends beyond the manager himself and to the senior management team the jig is truly up. With other teams at the foot of the table starting to wake up a little, the gamble starts to feel like leaving Marsch in place rather than removing him, and that surely is the point at which his position becomes untenable.
Because those eight games without a win have included games against Southampton, Everton, Brentford, Fulham, Leicester, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa, and that’s the sort of run that looks like relegation form. Against Fulham, even taking the lead had come about with a host of warning signs in the background, with their opponents spurning a couple of decent chances, and if your team can’t hold onto a lead when they so clearly and desperately need a win, then perhaps it’s for the best for all concerned to agree that this particular experiment has run its course. Leeds are looking like a team primed for relegation, and significant changes need to be made sooner rather than later, if they’re to escape the fall that they so narrowly avoided last season.