KENYA BROWN - Tuesday, January 7, 2020
Both Jesse Marsch and David Wagner are exceeding expectations at their respective teams and will be looking to build on their solid performances heading into the second half of the season.
Hiring American coaches to guide soccer teams in Europe is still a very rare thing and one that teams may be apprehensive to do based on the past experience of one specific coach.
When Bob Bradley was appointed as head coach of then English Premier League side Swansea City in October 2016, it was met with surprise and many questions. After stints at Stabaek in Norway's Tippeligaen and Le Havre in France's Ligue 2, could the former US national team coach compete with the likes of Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola, and Antonio Conte?
While Bradley tried his best to right the ship and pull the Swans from the depths of the relegation zone, he was ultimately fired after just 85 days on the job. Since that time, no American coach had even been considered for a job even in the lower leagues.
However, judging on the performances of Marsch and Wagner this season that could possibly change in the future. Both men have done well in their debut seasons for their respective teams, and could possibly end up with some silverware in their possession.
Let's have a look at how these two coaches have done so far with their teams.
Jesse Marsch (RB Salzburg)
Not many in Europe had an inkling of knowledge about the former New York Red Bulls coach. But he grabbed their attention following RB Salzburg's fightback in the Champions League group stage encounter against Liverpool at Anfield last October as he inspired his team to bounce back from a 3-0 deficit to level the score. Despite eventually falling to the reigning European champions by a 4-3 scoreline, it did serve notice that Marsch could coach at this level.
The viral video of the 45-year-old's halftime talk to his team may have also helped with him getting even more notoriety. Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp was in praise of the work Marsch has done at Salzburg.
"I couldn't have more respect for what Salzburg is doing here, the way they play football. Salzburg was unbelievably strong, especially in the first half, but we were too. We should have scored more goals. Massive respect for Jesse and what they did," said Klopp after the two teams faced each other on Dec. 10.
The Austrian Bundesliga may not be one of the top leagues in Europe, but it is a proving ground for both players and coaches that have aspirations to move to the highest levels of the game. It's a league that has been dominated by Salzburg as they have won six league titles in a row and 13 overall. And Marsch could be on the way to guiding them to a seventh consecutive title as they sit atop the standings with an unbeaten record thus far.
However, it's not domestic honors that concern Salzburg. They are intent on making their mark in Europe and it is in the Champions League where they want to make the most noise.
They started their Group E campaign with a resounding 6-2 win over Belgian champions Genk, sending a warning to Liverpool and Napoli that they were not going to be pushovers. And they did prove to be worthy challengers to the group favorites as they pushed them in every encounter. With a respectable third-place finish in the group stage, they will be looking to go as far as they can in the Europa League when it restarts in February.
The former US national team player has relied on a core of young players this season and they have shown their commitment to the coach by playing some brilliant soccer. However, entering the second half of the season he will have to find a way to work without the services of Erling Haaland and Takumi Minamino as both were sold respectively to Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool during the winter transfer window.
While the Austrian champions will most certainly look to reinforce the team in January, Marsch should not be starving for goals as he still retains Hwang Hee-Chan, Patson Daka, and Sekou Koita up top. He still has a strong nucleus in the midfield and the backline, so it should be enough to keep their nearest challengers, LASK Linz, at bay as they only sit two points behind the leaders.
Marsch likes to employ a high-pressing style on the field, but the question coming into the second half of the season will be how much he uses it because he does not want to leave anything exposed that could hurt them as they look to retain their domestic titles and push for the Europa League crown.
But overall, Marsch has impressed so far this season in Austria and given a huge positive for American coaches who want to test themselves in Europe. If he can keep this going, perhaps in a season or two he will be walking the sidelines for another team in a stronger league and getting the most he can out of the players at his disposal.
David Wagner (Schalke)
What a turnaround it has been for the Gelsenkirchen-based team this season. Around this same time last year, the Royal Blues were in a fight to stay afloat in the Bundesliga. But after firing Domenico Tedesco and bringing back Huub Stevens on an interim basis they were able to survive.
Then a stroke of luck came along when Wagner left Huddersfield Town in January 2019 after a lackluster campaign in their second season in the English Premier League. This gave Schalke the opportunity to hire the 48-year-old in May of that year and they have been on an upward trajectory ever since.
And the German-American's influence has started to rub off on the team.
After a slow start to their Bundesliga campaign with a tie and a loss, they went on to win their next four games, with the most notable one coming in a 3-1 victory over RB Leipzig at Red Bull Arena. While their form has not been as consistent as it should, they still have collected 30 points, leaving them seven points from the top spot.
The personnel that Wagner has at his disposal at Schalke is like night and day. While he deserves much credit for how he was able to work with the group of players he had at Huddersfield, not to mention on a shoestring budget, he has a more talented bunch this time around.
Relying on a pressing style in either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 formation that looks to force the opposition team to turn over the ball, the team has improved dramatically compared with last season. They have recorded four shutouts thus far compared with a total of seven in the previous campaign.
One of the bright spots this season with Wagner at the helm is that Weston McKennie now seems to be settled into a role in the midfield. Last season, the now 21-year-old literally played in every position with the exception of goalkeeper as management had no clue where to place him. While it is great to have a versatile player such as McKennie, it is vital that he has an established role and now it appears he does which will be of great benefit to the US national team.
The Texas native is one of the cogs in Wagner's pressing game, seeing him push into the opposing team's end to close down their deepest midfielder in hopes of forcing the ball out wide so that the fullbacks can pressure the wingers into a turnover.
Another positive for Schalke that has worked in the the coach's favor has been the schedule. With no European commitments, this has allowed him more time to work with his team to implement his system which has led to them being more competitive in the league.
While it may be a huge challenge to win the Bundesliga crown this season as RB Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Bayern Munich appear to be the strongest candidates, a European spot is certainly not out of the cards. They also have a good chance of winning the German Cup when that tournament resumes in February.
Whatever may happen over the next few months, Wagner will see this season as a positive step and look to build on it in the next one as Schalke strives to reestablish itself among the elite teams in Germany.
Down in Germany's 3. Liga, Joe Enochs has been trying to work his magic at FSV Zwickau. The team currently sits in the lower half of the standings with 24 points from 20 games, nine points from third place and a promotion playoff spot. It may be a tall task to work their way up to the promotion places, but Enochs can certainly get them into a stronger position in the middle of the standings.