The match-day program is rarely the place where a club chooses to air their dirty laundry, so Liam Cooper writing about “frank conversations” in the aftermath of Leeds United’s defeat to Aston Villa implied that the mood behind closed doors had been far more choice than that.
That Villa game last Thursday felt like Leeds’ nadir, the lowest ebb of a season which had been spiraling downwards for many weeks, but what happened when their players retreated from view after the final whistle was the start of the dramatic recovery that brought victory over fellow strugglers Norwich City three days later.
Most of the dressing room could see what was staring them in the face: play like they had just done in losing 3-0 at home to Villa and they were going nowhere but down.
All of them had to face up to the fact that Leeds were on the edge of relegation, with nowhere to hide.
The squad had it out there and then, a back-and-forward as Elland Road emptied.
Jesse Marsch left them to it.
His first home game as the club’s head coach had been a humiliation, a poisonous experience so unlike the blinding euphoria that followed against Norwich, but timing his own response was important.
The next morning, up at Thorp Arch, Marsch called players in for individual and collective meetings, to pick up the conversation they were already having between themselves. He had little over 48 hours to rejuvenate everything: the body language, the confidence, the tactical shortcomings.
His honeymoon period, if he could call it that, had finished.
Marsch was less than two weeks into the job and his way of clearing the air was to communicate with the team vivi.
One of the players he sought out as a matter of urgency was Rodrigo, whose performance against Villa had seen him substituted at half-time. Rodrigo has long been in an odd position at Leeds, with neither player or club ever quite sure what his most effective role is, but Marsch considered the 31-year-old, 27-cap Spain forward to be someone with enough quality and maturity to carry the club through a high-stakes run-in.
“He and I have gotten to know each other really well in the past few days,” Marsch says. “I told him how important he is and how he has to be a big part of the solution moving forward. We talked a lot about what my vision is for him and what my vision is for the team.”
An injection of reassurance showed in Rodrigo against Norwich on Sunday, in the goal he scored in the first half and his influence in controlling the game.
His pressing was better and he was more active and accurate on the ball. Leeds started to wane when Patrick Bamford was replaced at half-time of his first start since September but it was the loss of the Spaniard to a tight quad muscle on the hour, forcing him to make way for a more defensively-minded player in Robin Koch, that gave Norwich a route into the match.
Rodrigo is a doubt for Friday night’s game away to Wolverhampton Wanderers, though not ruled out at this stage.
For a long time, and throughout Marcelo Bielsa’s near-four year reign as head coach, Leeds maintained a leadership group of senior players, who the club relied on to maintain discipline and standards in the dressing room and who would speak for the squad on key Issues, like the wage deferral agreed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cooper, the club’s captain, was a member of it, along with others including Luke Ayling, Stuart Dallas and Adam Forshaw. It was seen as a way of keeping lines of communication between the dressing room and senior management open.
Marsch has continued to interact with that core of players since replacing Bielsa last month but he has widened what he called the “leadership council” by adding others to it.
Just a short time at the training ground told him that Bamford and Kalvin Phillips should be involved too — Marsch talked at his first press conference about giving Phillips “a bigger role within the team” — and he decided that the absence of foreign representation from a fairly cosmopolitan group was something he should rectify. Rodrigo was brought into the fold as an extra voice.
What the longer term holds for Rodrigo is hard to say.
He has two years left on his contract and is two games from a 50th league appearance for Leeds but his suitability, particularly for the systems Bielsa employed, has always been open to debate. He can flop as he did against Villa and yet come good as he did against Norwich — chalk and cheese in the space of four days. There are bad games, there are good games but not yet the prolonged form to justify the £27 million spent to bring him in from La Liga’s Valencia in the summer of 2020.
It is not much of a secret that Barcelona have been watching Rodrigo for a while, convinced that at some stage Leeds might be persuaded to cut their losses.
And yet for all that, Marsch was wary of letting the player check out or of losing him emotionally after substituting him in the defeat to Villa.
He had noticed that, in the week after Bielsa’s dismissal, Rodrigo made the effort to invite the entire squad out for his 31st birthday to the Flying Pizza restaurant in the city’s Roundhay district.
It was not a celebration of Bielsa’s departure but it did provide an opportunity for the players to get together in more relaxed circumstances away from the training ground, a slight release after a difficult weekend.
Everyone was expected to attend and no exceptions were made. Marsch wants Rodrigo to lead like that more often.
“He’s an honest man and he’s willing to have hard conversations and open conversations,” the American said. “I know he wants to help and I’m just trying to instil belief and an idea of how he fits — and how, on and off the field, he can be a massive presence. He took our conversation really well, as did I.”
Scheduled around light and gentle training sessions — as much as could be done in a tight turnaround between the Villa and Norwich matches — communication on various fronts seemed to make a difference.
In the time they had, Leeds were able to regroup and from the start on Sunday, the body language was better than it had been against Villa, albeit on Sunday they were playing against a worse team.
Having Bamford back up front was a tactical bonus, providing the best focal point Leeds have at No 9, and starting him despite his lack of match fitness was psychologically clever, telling a member of the leadership circle how valuable Marsch thought he was. Rodrigo came out of his shell and Raphinha looked far more like Raphinha — a player built for big moments.
Koch’s introduction in the second half made Leeds too defensive, too on the back foot, but Joe Gelhardt’s 94th-minute winner allowed Marsch to walk away feeling that, in the first moment of crisis, the dressing room had held together.
“We worked too hard to get here in the first place to throw it all away,” Cooper wrote in his program column for the Norwich match, and in feeling like that, the squad were on the same page.
(Top photo: George Wood/Getty Images)