ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae talks “passen” (German for “fit”), why Jesse Marsch didn’t fit and a new start for RB Leipzig in this week’s column.
I make a point of waking up ridiculously early on Sunday mornings, quite simply because it’s the day when big decisions are made at Bundesliga clubs. This past Sunday, I set my alarm for several hours before the crack of dawn despite knowing that the verdict on Jesse Marsch’s turbulent few months in Leipzig was already in. It was only a matter of the formal announcement itself, which promptly arrived.
– Marsch leaves RB Leipzig after five months
Back in early October, this column posed the question: was Marsch, having made an erratic start, the right man for RB Leipzig at this stage of their story? What I didn’t know was that if we’d taken Leipzig CEO Oliver Mintzlaff at his word, the coach from Wisconsin was asking himself that very same question.
Mintzlaff revealed in a fascinating interview on the Sport 1 Doppelpass show that Marsch had twice gone to the club bosses (apparently after matchdays 7 and 10) questioning whether the fit was right between team and coach. It must be said that we have yet to hear Marsch’s side of this, but if that’s true, it would have occurred after a 3-0 win over Bochum and then a 1-1 draw in Frankfurt, which saw Leipzig concede a painful equaliser in stoppage time.
The verb passen (“to fit, match”) is commonly used in German football parlance. If a coach and his players passen nicht zusammen (don’t fit together), then it’s essentially game over for the coach. The funny thing is, Mintzlaff brought in Marsch precisely because he was supposed to be the perfect match and a spark plug for the squad.
Julian Nagelsmann had made Leipzig better as a team, able to provide intelligent and effective solutions while in possession. Marsch’s remit was to repolish the club’s previous gegenpressing, power football ways and establish the best of both worlds.
In April, Jesse Marsch took the helm of RB Leipzig on a contract running until 2023, but he was sacked by December. Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images
At the start, everyone — Mintzlaff, players, media — said the right things about Marsch. He knew most of the squad, the city and the club ethos from his time as Ralf Rangnick’s assistant coach at RB Leipzig, and he of course understood the overarching RB philosophy having risen through the ranks as head coach from New York to Salzburg. His sunny disposition and upbeat motivational style were seen as a plus and an enrichment, all while his German language skills were noticeably improving.
Marsch stressed “fun and freedom” over traditional German values like organisation and discipline. He intentionally spoke of “our group” rather than “my team.” It’s clear that the players liked him personally but the tactical match just wasn’t there. Leipzig were trying to play in a style that was, for them, several years out of date under a coach who embodies that old style. It’s difficult to square that circle.
Former Germany international Stefan Effenberg remarked on television a few weeks ago that Marsch clearly was a coach who liked trying to win games 5-3, and argued that a club like Leipzig can’t go down that road; instead, they must introduce “basic belt and braces.” You can understand the argument. Faced with a squad that’s not suited to playing his way, can Marsch as a coach be flexible enough to change how he does things and adapt to the squad he has?
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Mintzlaff doesn’t get a free pass on this either. He was the one convinced Marsch and Leipzig would be a fit in the first place, preferring him to Oliver Glasner, and apparently that judgement was wrong. Marsch would have been well-served working with a seasoned sporting director, but there simply wasn’t one in place throughout his time in charge, following a failure to replace Markus Krosche when he left for Eintracht Frankfurt. Mintzlaff took exception to Sport 1 host Rudi Bruckner’s questioning on this issue, pointing out that even though there is no figurehead in place, that shouldn’t be confused with a lack of sporting competence at all levels of the club.
The narrative has emerged that Marsch was perhaps doomed due to the loss of players Dayot Upamecano and Marcel Sabitzer to Bayern and Ibrahima Konate to Liverpool throughout the summer. But Marsch himself acknowledged that he had probably the deepest squad in the Bundesliga, bolstered by signings like Josko Gvardiol, Mohammed Simakan and Andre Silva, on top of the gems already at his disposal.
Leipzig — with more defeats than wins, and without an away victory under Marsch — are below teams like Union, Mainz, Koln and Bochum. Try telling Steffen Baumgart or Thomas Reis that the Leipzig squad is in fact weaker than what they have to work with. It’s not.
On Tuesday in the Champions League win over Manchester City, under Marsch’s assistant Achim Beierlorzer, we saw Leipzig revert to a more compact, possession-based approach. The different look of the team was striking and much more in keeping with Nagelsmann-style football.
It’s important to differentiate between two key things here. Was Jesse Marsch unlucky? In terms of the timing of his tenure, the vision of the job vs. its reality and certainly having the misfortune to miss his final 3 games due to testing positive for COVID-19, being released by the club while still in isolation, absolutely.
Did Marsch get a fair shake? It’s uncomfortable for many to digest, but this is unfortunately a story of under-performance at its core. Leipzig have known nothing but an upward trajectory in their short history. When the negatives suddenly pile up under a new coach, there’s only one person who pays the price. For those who say Americans don’t get the benefit of the doubt, this would have been the outcome for an Italian, Scot, Dane, Frenchman — or indeed a German — had it been deemed that the fit was wrong. It’s a business decision, and there’s no sentimentality at the highest tier of football decision-making.
However, don’t forget every coach or managerial career has at least one setback. I’m old enough, after all, to remember Alex Ferguson getting sacked by St. Mirren. Marsch will be back — hopefully as a head coach somewhere else in Europe, and his best move might be to take some time off after what surely must have been a whirlwind couple of years working in football’s pressure cooker amid a pandemic. He has built up enough credit, and time can be a great healer.
Marsch’s successor at Leipzig will be former Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco, who returns to German football and was available after his two-year stint with Spartak Moscow. Whether he and Leipzig zusammenpassen (fit together) is an interesting question. Tedesco’s emphasis at Schalke was on defence first, transitional moments and set pieces. Since then he has evolved to an emphasis on positional play and possession.
We’ll know more very soon as Tedesco embarks upon life in the Heldenstadt. The stakes are high. A season away from the Champions League places is unacceptable for Mintzlaff and RB Leipzig.