Marsch’s career in Europe includes lessons gained as new Manchester United coach Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Leipzig, prior to taking the Salzburg job. However, the first time he met the German was when he was applying for the top job at New York Red Bulls, when Gérard Houllier was also part of the interviewing team. “Ralf didn’t say a word; he let Gérard do all the talking. And I think, after about 30 or 45 minutes, he liked what he was hearing from me. So he took over the interview from Gérard and started challenging me about things like pressing. He could see that we had similar ideas about how to play the game. Once I got the job, and I really got into depth with him about how they tactically do things at Red Bull football… it’s a bit radical. Watching films and talking about things, working on the tactical board, my first reaction, was, ‘I don’t know if this can work!’ But the more I thought about it coming together, the more I started to fall in love with these ideas.”
Marsch, who until recently was head coach at Leipzig, can also point to influences from US college soccer that have shaped the way he works. At Princeton Tigers he played under future US national coach Bob Bradley; he later returned there as assistant coach for a year, in between head coaching roles with Montreal Impact (now CF Montréal) and that New York Red Bulls role. “One of the nice things about university is that with the freshman, sophomore, junior, senior system, it’s a natural leadership cycle. So you come in as a freshman – you don’t know anything, you’re an idiot – but by the time you’re the senior, you’re the boss, right?
“It’s a cycle that breeds leadership. In professional football the cycle’s a little longer and there are maybe too many people. In Europe we maybe don’t do enough to encourage real leadership; trainers feel like they have to do everything, that that’s what a real leader is. Almost everywhere you go, the coaches will say, ‘Yeah, we have no real leaders.’ But I don’t think many coaches leave room for leadership – for their coaching staff or for their players – and thus they don’t really develop any leaders.”
Additionally, as assistant coach at Princeton, Marsch would look at and learn from other sports. “I used to go watch rowing practice at five in the morning; I used to watch squash training, fencing, basketball,” he explains. The rowers in particular provided a lesson he has transferred to football. “When you watch them train and compete, they go and they compete to total exhaustion – where they’re almost going to pass out in the boat. And I thought, ‘If I could get a football team to train at this level, to play at that level of commitment, what are the possibilities of what we can become?’ I have little phrases like ‘Empty the tank,’ and I talk about how to manage mental fatigue and push your body’s limits more and more and more. And I think that’s benefitted a lot of the players that I’ve been able to coach.”
As for basketball, there was a lesson taken from the Princeton coach Mitch Henderson. “One of the things that Mitch challenged me on was that basketball is all about set plays, so they have very succinct tactics. And he asked me about set pieces like corner-kicks, free-kicks: ‘Why do you serve the same kind of balls? Why do you always have the same kind of movements? Why aren’t there enough variations?’ At first I tried to fight him on this topic. Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘He’s right: why don’t we have more deception and creativity?’”
There are other examples of American ideas in the Champions League. The Moneyball approach introduced at Liverpool under their owners, the Fenway Sports Group, has paid dividends in recent seasons. Chelsea, meanwhile, offer an example in Joe Edwards. One of Thomas Tuchel’s assistant coaches, he cites the importance of six weeks spent in the US in 2017, observing coaches at NFL and NBA clubs, notably the San Antonio Spurs basketball team.
“The resounding point I came away with was that we’re working in a team sport and so are they, but they place more emphasis on individual development being an ongoing process,” he says. “I’d been part of an academy background where that’s the norm. Every kid in the academy has an individual programme because that is the sole purpose of the academy: to produce individuals. But when they cross the road into first-team environments and it’s about the team, and the result is everything, sometimes you get six months into the season and this player or that player has just been lost. A few key skills that would take their form from an OK level to a high level are not being worked on.”
It is worth noting that, on his return to west London, Edwards took over the Chelsea U19s and led them to back-to-back UEFA Youth League finals. In an ever more global game, the American way is carrying ever more weight, it seems – on and off the pitch.