Life after Marcelo Bielsa at Leeds does not look dull but for all the promise, fun and trademark buccaneering style, there was a painfully familiar outcome as Jesse Marsch’s first game in charge ended in a slender defeat.
It was all change on the sidelines – for the first time in three-and-a-half years the Leeds technical area was clear of an enigmatic figure perched on a blue club-branded bucket – but they piled forward with their typical gusto and despite creating countless chances departed with nothing to show for an encouraging performance after Harvey Barnes’s cool second-half finish earned back-to-back wins for Leicester.
Leeds have not kept a clean sheet since November and while suffering another pounding never appeared likely, improving the Premier League’s leakiest defence must be high on Marsch’s to-do list.
But, make no mistake, Marsch was delighted with what he saw. At full-time he gathered his squad together in the centre circle to give his players an animated instant debrief before heading over to the away fans and beating his chest.
“It was a real simple message: just that this was very positive and a big step in the right direction,” he said. “I want them to know how strong that was, how good that was. We’ve got to relieve the stress a little bit. I told them: ‘If we keep playing like this, we’re going to get all the points we need.’ The only negative is the result. What a great first step.”
Brendan Rodgers paid tribute to Bielsa in his programme notes, saying he believes “the Premier League will be a poorer place without his values”. The Leeds fanbase arrived still in mourning after the sacking of Bielsa, who shook hands with supporters after saying his goodbyes on Monday and whose face adorns murals in Hyde Park and Wortley, the latter depicting him as Christ the Redeemer. It was a thrilling ride Leeds fans did not want to get off but this first glimpse of the post-Bielsa era made for exciting viewing, despite extending their winless run to seven matches.
The first half was played at a frenetic pace, Dan James whistling a shot wide inside the opening couple of minutes and Leeds did not relent. Marsch, who became the first American to manage in the Champions League with RB Leipzig in 2019, conceded he was not in pursuit of perfection after only four sessions at training but there were plenty of positives for him to scribble on a notepad he stowed into his overcoat.
Junior Firpo found joy marauding from left-back and Rodrigo, one of two changes, blasted over after a move he started. But the killer blow eluded them.
Leeds kept Kasper Schmeichel busy in the Leicester goal. Raphinha would have converted Firpo’s cross at the front post had the goalkeeper not somehow diverted the ball clear via his shins and Daniel Amartey, again operating at centre-back, prevented Jack Harrison from blasting goalwards, blocking his shot after the winger wound up on the edge of the box.
Joe Gelhardt also went close within seconds of coming on after Leeds stitched together a slick move. Stuart Dallas played a cute pass into Mateusz Klich, who slipped in Raphinha down the right and he centred the ball. Gelhardt gathered the pass with his first touch and skewered a shot at goal, but it was deflected wide.
Rodgers was again forced to name a makeshift defence owing to the injury sustained to Ricardo Pereira in victory over Burnley in midweek but Jamie Vardy lasted an hour, as planned, on his first start since December and relished the battle with Luke Ayling. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall was graceful in midfield and Barnes’s goal on 67 minutes was equally neat.
He played a crisp one-two with the substitute Kelechi Iheanacho, controlling the ball on his left foot and sweeping a classy right-foot shot into the far corner beyond Ilan Meslier. It was just the lift Leicester required in a match that jumped from end to end.
“It was a game Marcelo would have been proud of,” Rodgers said.