Jesse Marsch Is In Transition

• 7 min read
Jesse Marsch Is In Transition

Can Leipzig's new American coach get his team moving in the right direction?

Jesse Marsch wants you to run the wrong way.

That’s what he does. It’s how his teams have always played. “The way that people like to talk about us is ‘high-pressing’ and ‘aggressive without the ball.’ Here they call it ‘against the ball,’” the new RB Leipzig manager explained in a webinar last year, back when he was winning trophies at Salzburg. “That’s our starting point, what we do against the ball.”

The problem with playing against the ball is you’re always running the wrong way. The other team, the team with the ball, gets to pick when and where it moves next, and every time you sprint forward to close down you’re volunteering to get taken out of the play. If the ball gets around you — a successful dribble, a forward pass — there’s not much chance you’ll stop, slam it into reverse, and recover in time to get involved in that defensive sequence again. You’re simply gone. Vanished. Exit stage left.

The percentages aren’t in your favor. According to FBref’s StatsBomb data, a tackler wins the ball against a dribble 35 percent of the time. A pass is incomplete about 20 percent of the time. No surprise, then, that only 30 percent of pressures will produce a turnover in the next five seconds. For the most successful defenses, those numbers get up to around 42, 28, and 35 percent, respectively. You’re better off shooting craps than trying to win the ball by pressing.

With odds like that, it only really makes sense to attack the ball if your team can roll the dice multiple times in a row, stacking up chances to get lucky, and can do it far enough up the field that the payoff when you win the ball outweighs the cost when you get beat. Marsch has a plan for that. He calls it “ball-oriented pressing.” He’s actually pretty good at explaining it if you listen:

Marsch uses the acronym SARD to explain how he wants to press. It’s in German, so I’m guessing this isn’t something he came up with (although he speaks pretty good German) but inherited from his mentor, the former Red Bull guru Ralf Rangnick (who speaks it better). This whole playing against the ball thing, the ball-oriented pressure, it’s all Rangnick’s idea. Marsch is the favorite student who likes to go around reciting his teacher’s credo that teams are most likely to win the ball back within eight seconds of losing it and to score within ten seconds of winning it back. Those two numbers, whether they strike you as revelatory or Reepian, are the basis for the playstyle.

“Our pressing and counterpressing and transition tactics overtake classic tactics, which is the ‘fall into the block of eight and cover the spaces,’ or some of the old Milan spatial-zonal defending,” Marsch told his other mentor, Bob Bradley, in a YouTube conversation last summer. Run the wrong way and the rest will follow.

But yeah, SARD. The S is for Sprinting. That one doesn’t need translation. When you press, you press at speed, leaving your spot in the team’s compact 4-2-2-2 mid-block or equally compact 4-2-3-1 attacking shape only when you can get to the opponent at the same time as the ball. Any earlier and you’ll leave a hole to play through. Any later and he’ll have time to get his head up and figure out how to get around you. One of Marsch’s rules of thumb is that if you’re going to press you should be half as far from the receiver as the passer is, since the ball moves faster than the man, and you should start your sprint as soon as the ball is released.

The A is for Alle Gemeinsam, all together. When I move, you move. This isn’t really a Red Bull thing, it’s just how a good press works, but Marsch is more committed than most coaches to throwing numbers at the ball.

The R is Reingehen, going in. This one is a Red Bull thing. A lot of coaches will tell you the first defender should stop short, wait for support, not risk getting beat right away. Not Marsch. He’s begging you to take that risk, close that last yard, step into the tackle, and trust that your teammates will back you up if you get beat. The closer you get to the ball, the bigger your cover shadow to cut off passes behind you, making it easier for teammates to anticipate where the ball will go next.

Sometimes it’ll go past you, of course, but that’s why we’ve got D for Dazukommen, the second wave. A dribbler who’s just escaped a tackle or a receiver trying to corral an emergency pass are prime targets for pressing. The ball is loose. Their head is down. They’re probably not facing the way they want to be. Overloads around the ball ensure there’s somebody there to tackle the dribbler again or, better yet, to step in front of an opponent and cut out a pass, what Marsch calls “forechecking.”

“Every guy’s job is not just to be tight or to be close or to be pressing together,” Marsch said in that webinar. “Every guy’s job is to try to figure out how to be in position to win the next ball. And then when we win it we want to play as vertical as we can, and we tell our front players that the end goal is to run to the penalty spot in transition.”

This is the part where it gets good. Because if you run the wrong way against the ball long and hard and together enough, there’s a pretty good chance someone will win the ball, and suddenly you’ll find you’re running the right way and it’s the other team’s momentum that’s carrying them in the wrong direction. That’s when you attack. Marsch doesn’t want to win the ball and secure possession with some circulation while everyone finds their position. He wants to win it and put it in the goal as fast as possible.

That means no passing out to the wing, no long lazy switches that will let the defense recover. Aim straight for the channel between the center backs. (Marsch hates wide “counter crosses” that the opposing keeper can pluck from midair and launch the other way without giving his team a chance to counterpress, even though they’re his new left back Angeliño’s specialty.)

There’s this one particular passing pattern that defines Marsch’s teams. Germans call it Steil-Klatsch, but English speakers might recognize it as up-back-through. A Red Bull player fires a low, midrange progressive pass into the heart of the defense and takes off running after it. If there’s a nearby teammate on the other side of the receiver, he’ll chase the pass too. That gives the guy on the other end of the pass, who’s usually dropping to the ball with a defender at his back, options on either side for a one-touch layoff.

If the layoff is successful, the guys who were following the pass are running right up the gut of an unsettled defense to look for that last throughball. If it’s not successful, if the ball is poked away, the guys who were chasing the pass are already sprinting into a counterpressing situation. A complete pass or an incomplete one, an attacking phase or a defensive transition, look exactly the same.  This is the genius of Marsch’s Rangnick ball: you’re always playing against the ball even when you’re playing with it. And when it clicks at speed, it’s terrifying.

Leipzig's second goal against Stuttgart is a textbook example of how Marsh's Steil-Klatsch passing and SARD counterpressing look the same.

But what if it doesn’t click at speed? Then it looks how Leipzig has for most of Marsch’s first six weeks in charge: disorganized, disjointed, a step slow, too easy to play through. It looks like the club is long on ideology and short on ideas. It looks like everyone’s running the wrong way.

The difference is in the details, in timing and distances and coordinated movements that take training to nail down. Marsch is confident he can get his team there. “This is where I feel that I have evolved as a coach,” he said, “is creating clarity and details of how we’re trying to play in every phase.”

The interesting question isn’t whether Marsch can implement his style — he’s done it before with lesser players, he can do it here — but whether he should. Maybe playing against the ball works in MLS (his low-budget New York team topped the table twice in four years). Maybe it works in the Austrian Bundesliga (he won the double both seasons at Salzburg). Maybe it doesn’t work at the level that Leipzig wants to be. Over the last few years, under Rangnick and Julian Nagelsmann, Red Bull’s flagship club had been relaxing its press, improving its passing, and playing more like the best teams in the world.

Of course Red Bull knew who they were hiring. They’d been grooming him for this job for years. Marsch is a bet that Leipzig can still win the Red Bull way, with good old-fashioned Rangnick ball, and so far everyone’s been pretty chill about that not happening. The group’s global head of soccer Oliver Mintzlaff said after a 4-1 loss to Bayern Munich last weekend that players need time to “internalize the new philosophy” — new to most of these young players, who were barely even pros when Rangnick’s Leipzig first took the Bundesliga by storm.

“He doesn’t have to worry about his job,” Mintzlaff added. “We are in a transition phase.”

Which, after all, is exactly where Marsch likes to be. ❧


Image: Francisco Goya, Spanish Entertainment

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