Several months before the end of the world, before Leeds United were expelled from the Premier League, before Everton’s victory on the final day of the EPL tipped this historic English club to relegation, Leeds were celebrated in the United States for its Americanness.
He had an American head coach and, at the end of January, three midfielders from the American men’s national team. Their brightest moments were memorable for the sport in the United States. They represented the growth of men’s soccer and the progress Americans made in the global game. Their mere presence as protagonists in the world’s preeminent league felt like progress.
But then their season started to spiral. Jesse Marsch, the Wisconsin coach, was sacked with his team straddling the border of the relegation zone. Three coaches and countless moans later, Leeds have suffered the EPL’s most feared fate. He needed a win and an assist on Sunday to avoid relegation; he has neither. Fans wept after a 4-1 loss to Tottenham. At Liverpool, Everton beat Bournemouth to stay up – meaning 2015-16 champions Leicester also fell.
And so the question arose of the guilt of the Americans in the fall of Leeds.
But neither Marsch nor Tyler Adams, nor Brenden Aaronson nor Weston McKennie top the list of those responsible. On the contrary, perhaps this cursed season could have been saved if Leeds had supported Marsch – or, more importantly, if Adams had remained healthy.
Leeds were better with Jesse Marsch
Marsch was boxed in February after 20 games and just four wins, with Leeds in 17th and the angst is understandably mounting. But eye tests and scans suggested they had fallen victim to the randomness of football. The Most Anticipated Goals (xG) models, which measure chance creation and its defensive equivalent, suggested Leeds were playing like a mid-table team; only bad luck or poor finishing – which no manager can control – limited them. One of these models had them in 11th place.
Leeds looked somewhere between stale and abysmal in Marsch’s last four EPL games, prompting the sacking, but even that perception was heavily swayed by uncontrollables. Leeds have created more xGs than their opponent in each of those four games, per FBref. In the meantime, he has twice won the FA Cup. It wasn’t a sinking ship – until club owners and managers panicked and turned it into one.
Under Marsch, Leeds’ expected non-penalty goal differential was -5.15, or -0.26 per game, good for 11th in the league. Under his three successors, Michael Skubala, Javi Gracia and Sam Allardyce, the xGD per game dropped to -0.93, the worst rating in the league.
The other inflection point came in March. In the team’s first six games after Marsch, including two against Manchester United, they were poor but competitive, with an xGD per game of -0.6. Then Tyler Adams suffered a hamstring injury and everything changed.
Tyler Adams’ injury changed everything
Adams, the USMNT midfielder signed from RB Leipzig last summer, took the Premier League by storm in the fall. He buzzed around Elland Road and other grounds, shielding the Leeds defense and tilting the pitch forward. He was far from perfect, especially on the ball, but without him he was superb.
And with Adams on the pitch, Leeds were relatively strong. In his 24 starts, they took 23 points, and the underlying numbers were even better. Their xGD was -4.7, or -0.19 per game. It was 11th place pace.
Without Adams, in 13 games before Sunday’s, their xGD was -16.3, or -1.25 per game, by far the worst in the league. (Across the whole season, in 37 games, the worst EPL rating was Nottingham Forest at -0.7.)
Adams never returned from the hamstring injury and Leeds collapsed in the relegation zone and never recovered.