On Sunday morning, Southampton sacked Nathan Jones following a 2-1 home defeat to Wolves in which Southampton had taken the lead and saw their opponents go down to ten men in the 27th minute.
With just one Premier League win in eight games and two goals scored from open play, as well as alienating Southampton fans and national media alike with his comments along the way, many would argue this was far too late. The only win in that period coming against an Everton side at their lowest in the last few days under Frank Lampard.
Sport Republic looked to have acted swiftly to find a replacement and American Jesse Marsch was seemingly that man. Just a week after being sacked by Leeds United, Marsch could have found himself at another Premier League club entrenched in a relegation battle. Just when it seemed an announcement was imminent, the deal was suddenly off. Disagreements regarding the length of Marsch’s contract were reportedly the stumbling block, with the Southampton hierarchy only offering a deal until the end of the season with the option to extend.
Premier League fans know Marsch’s back-story given his time at Leeds. He was appointed at Elland Road in February 2022 following the sacking of the much-adored Marcelo Bielsa and managed to steer Leeds clear of relegation despite starting in the bottom three on the final day of the season. He adopted a group that had been subject to a very specific style of coaching under Bielsa and slowly began to make the side his own, as well as seeing the two best players at the club sold in the summer in Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha. However, there is of course a reason he was relieved of his duties earlier this month, with just four wins in the league this season and a run of just two wins in their last 17 league fixtures.
But, what could Southampton fans have expected from the man who was so close to becoming their new manager?
The first thing they could have expected is the polar opposite of Nathan Jones; something that is likely to have been music to the ears of the fanbase. Marsch is a character who exudes positivity and speaks highly of his players and the fans alike, something that could not be said about Jones during his short spell at the helm. Marsch is known for his ability to improve young players and and instil confidence in his team. His man-management skills were likely to be just as important – if not more so – than his tactics given the position Southampton are in and the stage of the season.
At Leeds, Marsch trusted the young players and gave them plenty of opportunities. The likes of Wilfried Gnonto, Pascal Struijk, Brenden Aaronson, Sam Greenwood and Crysencio Summerville undoubtedly benefited hugely from this and all progressed under Marsch’s mentorship. Southampton have a seemingly endless list of young players that could have benefitted from similar coaching and guidance, with Romeo Lavia, Samuel Edozie, Sékou Mara, Tino Livramento, Gavin Bazunu and Carlos Alcaraz just a few that fall into that category, not to mention 17-year-old Dom Ballard who looks a real talent in the youth teams.
Tactically, Marsch is very much from the Red Bull school of football of which ex-manager Ralph Hasenhüttl was a star pupil. With six consecutive years in the Red Bull model, split across spells at New York Red Bulls, Red Bull Salzberg and RB Leipzig, the parallels between Marsch and Hasenhüttl are clear. This is a group of players who are used to that blueprint given the almost four years that Hasenhüttl spent in charge and they are well-versed in gegenpressing tactics. This was likely a strong contributing factor to Marsch being targeted, although it could be argued that Marsch is a slightly inferior version of Hasenhüttl who would have been appointed to continue the Austrian’s work. It was after all a style that kept Southampton in the Premier League during Hasenhüttl’s tenure, all with significantly less investment than the club has made on players this season.
Marsch has been known to play the 4222 system that Saints fans had become accustomed to under Hasenhüttl, but in his most recent job at Leeds the American implemented a 4231 shape more often. In this system, the central attacking midfielder in the 4231 would act as a second striker in attack. The majority of time this would be Aaronson, with Rodrigo up front – although had Bamford been fit more regularly it is likely this would have been Rodrigo playing off of Bamford.
In Marsch’s 4231 system, all three players behind the striker are effectively attacking midfielders. Whether it be a 4222 or 4231 Marsch’s sides play very narrow and quickly look to play forward vertical passes to get the ball into the final third as quickly as possible. This is not to say there is no width when attacking, but the wide attacking midfielders are generally expected to occupy the half-spaces. Therefore, the full-backs are the players given the responsibility to provide a passing option wide. There is also an emphasis on low crosses into the box, with the idea being to get as many players into the box as possible to attack these. With the 6 foot 7 Onuachu having recently arrived at St Mary’s, some lofted balls into the box may not have been the worst idea.
Out of possession, the team maintain a narrow structure with the aim of forcing the opposition to play the ball wide, often to a full-back. This acts as the trigger for intense pressure and Marsch’s sides look to swarm the ball when it goes wide and outnumber the man on the ball, forcing a turnover. Unlike many managers, Marsch instructs his side to press the ball-receiver as soon as the player making the pass to them has released the ball, giving them less time before they even receive the ball.
Under Hasenhüttl, there wasn’t as much of a demand to stay narrow and compact through the middle of the pitch when compared with Marsch’s approach, despite their similar footballing education. Under Hasenhüttl, Southampton were all too often easy to play through. Once the initial press was beaten it left Southampton’s defence exposed on a far too regular basis and the defensive players Southampton had – and currently have – are not of the ilk that you want to be exposed too many times.
If Saints fans were expecting a manager that is going to come in and instantly tighten up the backline then they would likely have been left sorely disappointed. That is not Marsch’s approach – at least not on the face of it. Marsch will have looked to get Southampton to concede less goals through winning the ball high up the pitch and, in essence, keeping the ball as far away from their goal as possible. This season, his Leeds side conceded 34 goals in 20 Premier League games prior to his departure and were particularly susceptible to goals from cutbacks and square balls to the back post. The regularity at which his Leeds side conceded to an unmarked man at the back post is concerning and could be identified as a direct result of the high-pressing system that, once it is bypassed, there are likely to be overloads in favour of the opposition attackers.
Saints fans could have expected heavily transition-based football, the like of which was on display under Hasenhüttl. Often with Marsch’s side the result depends on which side are more efficient with the turnovers. He is not a manager that is concerned with possession statistics, he is far more interested in efficiency. The profile of the current Southampton squad, combined with their familiarity with the idea of vertical passes and getting into the ‘red zone’ as Hasenhüttl called it, mean that Marsch’s philosophy should have been quick to implement and would have suited the players.
In Hassenhuttl’s time in charge, the player who was the most effective in getting into the ‘red zone’ was Stuart Armstrong. The ‘red-zone’ is a term used for the final third of the pitch, with the centre of this area emphasised. Armstrong, through his ability to find space and ball-carrying prowess, was one of the most crucial players in Hasenhuttl’s 4222 system for most of his time in charge. He would start most games as the right attacking midfielder and make runs from out-to-in to overload the middle of the pitch and cause confusion in the opponent’s defence. Should the left-back follow him or a centre-back engage? Should a midfielder cover him and leave another player free? These questions, posed in a game that requires split-second decisions, create space and options in the area of the pitch that you are most likely to score from. The Red Bull model that Ralf Rangnick masterminded has a key principle of having a shot or creating an opportunity within ten seconds of gaining possession. Marsch and Hasenhüttl have both never strayed from this principle.
He has struggled for fitness over the past 18 months or so, but under Marsch Stuart Armstrong could have been key once again. It may have been that James Ward-Prowse dropped back from his recent attacking midfield berth to be a number six again alongside Lavia. Ward-Prowse has performed very well in this advanced role, but Marsch tends to prefer more dynamic players in the attacking positions and players that are able to progress the ball through dribbling. Neither of these are elements of Ward-Prowse’s game that you would consider strengths. Whilst this change of management could have opened the door for a return to Stuart Armstrong’s best, it could also be said that this system could have resulted in a more prominent role for Joe Aribo. The man signed from Rangers in the summer has struggled to hold down a starting position since arriving on the south coast, with his output not being high enough to be the sole number ten but also not being effective enough as a winger. A narrow attacking midfield role could have been the kickstart his Southampton career needs.
Whether it would have been a 4222 or a 4231, it could have meant that we would see Che Adams and Paul Onuachu playing together; whether as a pair or with Adams as the second striker. Kamaldeen Sulemana was incredibly impressive in his home debut against Wolves and looks a player that should be a starter regardless of the manager or system.
With that taken into consideration, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see Southampton line-up as below under Marsch, although he should arguably have been looking to find a place for Saturday’s goalscorer Carlos Alcaraz in his side. Mislav Oršić may have also presented an interesting option, either as one of the wide number tens or as a second striker. With Southampton’s January recruitment win forward areas, Marsch would have had options.
Southampton travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea this weekend before facing Marsch’s former club Leeds at Elland Road a week later. Marsch would surely have a burning desire to prove a point against his old side but, ultimately, negotiations appear to be over.
With Jones, due in part to the World Cup break, Southampton did not have the opportunity to ride the wave of a new manager bounce. With Marsch’s positive approach, Southampton fans were clinging onto some optimism that it could be different this time around. Instead, it will be coach Ruben Selles who is in charge of the team for at least the Chelsea game. He has thrown his hat into the ring and Southampton’s owners may be minded to see how the Spaniard gets on.
Regardless of who takes on the role permanently, they will have their work cut out to keep Southampton in the Premier League. Bottom of the league and four points from safety, there really is no margin for error with the appointment.