GRAEME SOUNESS: Leeds have fire in their bellies

GRAEME SOUNESS: Leeds have fire in their bellies – they are clearly playing for Jesse Marsch… and Marcus Rashford could be an unlikely World Cup hero for England in a side that is lacking goals

  • Leeds’ players are clearly playing for Jesse Marsch despite the fans’ issues
  • They set the standard for performances with their win over Liverpool at Anfield
  • The side must now produce them regularly – their style of play is admirable
  • Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, could be who England turn to at the World Cup 

There are times when watching a Premier League match resembles taking a seat ring-side to observe two boxers engaged in a slugfest.

You are witnessing a pair of combatants who never take a step backwards, with not the slightest hint of one waiting for the other to come on to him. Leeds United were one of those boxers at Liverpool last weekend.

There was all the usual noise we have come to expect swirling around their manager Jesse Marsch ahead of that game. Plenty of people salivating at the idea of another manager getting his cards. Picking up on the fact that some of the Leeds fans had turned on him.

Leeds have fire in their bellies and the players are clearly playing for manager Jesse Marsch

They set the standard for performances with their win over Liverpool at Anfield last month 

Well, the first thing that jumped out for me was that this was not a Leeds side feeling sorry for themselves after four straight defeats. This was a team full of belief and energy, playing for their manager.

Marsch handled that week and that day well and even his harshest critics could not argue that the team, who won 2-1, ran their socks off. A manager’s priority is to get the most out of the group of players he is working with. If that was Leeds’ normal work-rate, Marsch is getting as much as he can from them. What an advert for the Premier League that game was.

Leeds got lucky. Liverpool had 69 per cent of the ball and 20 shots on goal. Illan Meslier had a fantastic game and made nine saves. But any Leeds supporter watching that game could depart safe in the knowledge that they have fire in their bellies to perform at this level.

Leeds ran their socks off against Liverpool and Marsch is clearly getting the most out of them

Marsch is a very good fit for Leeds. He doesn’t mind making his feelings felt to officials on the touchline and so long as he doesn’t go overboard, I have no issues with that. Elland Road is the right stadium for that — as hostile an atmosphere as you will get in the Premier League. It was never easy to play there and the atmosphere remains as partisan as ever.

The talk after Leeds’ four straight defeats was that their cavalier style of football was going to land them in another relegation struggle. Well, people complicate our sport at times. If you have got top players who work their socks off when they haven’t got the ball and who have quality when in possession of it, you have got a chance of being successful.

That is what they always used to tell us at Liverpool, where there were no lengthy conversations on tactics, formations, strategies and set-pieces. That philosophy is as true today as it was when Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran were reminding us of it on a weekly basis.

There is no sitting back with Leeds – if they lose the ball, they go hunting again immediately

Some of the entirely legitimate tackles flying in against Liverpool were a throwback, too. All over the pitch, Leeds were making their physical presence felt and I say without the remotest hesitation that what we saw from Leeds was a manful approach to the task at hand. Great to see.

Leeds show the same willingness to get on the front foot that they did under Marcelo Bielsa, only with a bit more pragmatism. But by adopting that approach, they do make themselves vulnerable. There is no ‘lose the ball, drop back to the halfway line and get your shape’. It is ‘lose the ball, go hunting again, even when you are high up the pitch’. Going after teams in this way is very progressive but it does make you vulnerable.

With due respect to Leeds, Manchester City do this with another level of player, as have Liverpool in the past five years. Leeds are trying to play like the very best of our league — which is admirable and makes them a good watch — but with the players they have, there is a greater risk.

Marsch’s side are trying to play like the best our league has to offer, but that comes with a risk

They have players who impress me, though. I like the American Brenden Aaronson and it is no surprise to me that he was on the radar of some major clubs last summer. He is an athlete and a flair player with a tremendous appetite for work, who stands a good chance of being successful in our game.

Rodrigo is one of those players who will run with the ball, and excites you. And Marsch is clearly able to motivate them. All you can do when there is negative noise coming your way is block it out and accept it is the price on the ticket — even now that some of the basic respect and decency we once knew has gone out of the window.

Marsch has hired a psychologist to help the team. We can pass judgment on that decision six months from now, though when I was a manager, you were the one who had to be the psychologist.

Leeds face Bournemouth on Saturday and have to be beating teams around them at home

The match against my local side, Bournemouth, tomorrow is important to both sides but Leeds need to be beating teams around them in the table at Elland Road. That is how Marsch must sell it. 

His players ran 11 kilometres more than Liverpool last weekend. Was that because Liverpool had so much of the ball and Leeds had to hunt it down? Or was that part of the reason for some of Liverpool’s ills in a season when they are still not matching other teams’ intensity?

One good win does not change everything for Leeds. Now they need to apply that work ethic to a different kind of challenge. In football, as in all sports, it is a question of sustaining the standard you set.

The Whites have now set the standard for performances and must produce them regularly

Rashford could be an unlikely World Cup hero for England

England only have a chance of doing well at the World Cup — which for me means reaching the semi-final or final — if Harry Kane has a superb tournament. I’m not sure who else will get lots of goals for them.

I think Gareth Southgate will opt for Marcus Rashford as the back-up striker ahead of Callum Wilson and Ivan Toney and it will be tough for the ones who miss out, given their fine form this season. 

Rashford’s experience and return to form make him a cert, after a couple of years not being the automatic choice. There is no better place to step up than at a World Cup. He could have a month of great football.

Gareth Southgate could opt for Marcus Rashford as back-up for Harry Kane at the World Cup

Ben Chilwell’s hamstring injury is a blow to England with Reece James also struggling

Ben Chilwell’s hamstring injury playing for Chelsea is a blow to England, with Reece James already a doubt. A hamstring injury is the one the players hate. Bob Paisley, who was physio at Liverpool before he was manager, would look at a player with a hamstring injury and declare it was ‘a four-weeker’ or ‘a six-weeker.’ 

I’ve witnessed many a player re-joining training, declaring themselves fit and then on the first sprint in the game it will be a ‘ping’ — the hamstring’s gone again because in the rehabilitation period the player was subconsciously holding something back and protecting it. Then they are back to square one.

This situation makes Kieran Trippier an even more valuable member of the squad. The full back positions are a major issue now. Gareth no longer has an embarrassment of riches there. But Trippier can play on both flanks and challenge Luke Shaw for the starting position on the left.

Rashford’s experience and return to form make him a cert for a return to the England squad

A poignant memory, and being frozen out of cup 

I was sorry to hear of the death of Ronnie Radford, who scored one of the FA Cup’s most re-played goals for Hereford United against Newcastle United in 1971. 

It was poignant to be remembering him on the week of the old competition’s first round. It was a trophy that eluded me until I won it as Liverpool manager in 1992, when we beat Sunderland 2-0, and I certainly had my moments.

There was a game on a frozen pitch at Reading’s Elm Park, where I took my Southampton side in 1997. The referee bounced the ball on the surface and declared: ‘It’s fine for me.’ I said: ‘I tell you what. You get the ball, I’ll knock you over and when you hit the ground, tell me it’s still fine.’ He didn’t accept. We lost 3-1.

I was sorry to hear of the death of Ronnie Radford (left) ahead of the FA Cup first round

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