Jesse Marsch has made Leeds the dirtiest team in the league

Leeds United’s great gambit in sacking Marcelo Bielsa risked making a unique team anonymous. There is little danger of that under his replacement Jesse Marsch, who has remodelled his side into something equally distinctive: the dirtiest team the Premier League has seen for years.

This is a man educated at Princeton and shaped by the progressive MLS. He came of age as a manager in Austria, the cradle of modern European football intelligentsia. The earnest press conference talk of transitions, build-up phases and ‘plays’ was predictable enough, less so Leeds’ return to the days and tackling textbook of Don Revie.

Two red cards in Leeds’ last two first halves tell a grim story of his team’s mindset. Their failings under Bielsa were never a lack of commitment or a tendency to back down from a fight. A horrible injury list made them ragged at times this season, but theirs was a deliberate recklessness, baked in by their manager rather than a fundamental lack of discipline. Now they look rash and frequently violent. Marsch’s greatest tactical innovation seems to be taking Bielsa’s ‘murderball’ idea literally. 

Dan James’ red card tackle on Mateo Kovacic on Wednesday night looked appropriately bloody and thunderous in real time and the context of a relegation scrap. From the calm vantage point of slow motion replays it was a deserved straight red card from Anthony Taylor. It was high, late and unsafe.

It came four days after Luke Ayling’s crazed two-footed lunge on Arsenal’s Gabriel Martinelli, who was taking a breather by the corner flag with his team 2-0 up after 25 minutes. That brought another deserved straight red. The fact Leeds came close to forcing a draw with 10 men made Ayling’s tackle more reprehensible in retrospect.

No prizes for guessing which team tops the Premier League’s foul table this season. Leeds had 430 before Wednesday night’s games, with Watford close behind with 424. That is poor company for a team hoping to avoid relegation, although Norwich’s position as the fourth cleanest team suggests the opposite issue: too nice by half.

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