Premier League Logo
Coaching

Jackson: Building connection with players is key to coaching

Adrian Clarke 2 Jul 2022
Mark Jackson, Leeds United

Adrian Clarke speaks with boyhood Leeds fan now first-team coach on his role and future ambitions

The Premier League has a vision to develop a world-leading coaching development system by elevating the quality of coaching across the English system through its Elite Coaching Plan.  

As part of this, we are showcasing in a series of articles, how the Premier League is leading a positive change in the global perception of our coaching at academy and first-team levels, as well as increasing the diversity of the coaching workforce. 

Adrian Clarke spoke earlier this year to Leeds United first-team coach Mark Jackson who kindly set time aside to speak less than 48 hours after they dramatically secured their Premier League status with a 2-1 victory at Brentford on the final day.

Mark Jackson (LEE)

“From the moment Jesse Marsch was brought into the club, so much changed so quickly for everyone," Jackson says.

“Coming away from Marcelo Bielsa’s unique system of play built around man-marking, at a time when we were fighting a relegation battle, required a huge amount of adaptation from the players and staff.

“We didn’t have a lot of time. There was a need to hit the ground running.

"And the way Jesse works on the training ground, was also completely different to how it had been, but together we worked really, really, hard to help the players understand this major transition as quickly as possible.

“There was pressure, and it was challenging, but thankfully the hard work paid off.”

The 44-year-old is a former academy graduate, with 19 first-team appearances for Leeds. Born in the city, and a boyhood fan to boot, he was thrilled to return to Elland Road six-and-a-half years ago in a coaching capacity.

Initially brought in by Paul Hart to work with the Under-15s, he has since coached the Under-16s, Under-18s and more recently Leeds’ Premier League 2 side.

First-team promotion

This upward trajectory went to the next level in March, when Marsch joined from RB Leipzig to replace Bielsa.

Keen to draw on Jackson’s knowledge of the club and their young players, the American promoted him to become part of his first-team coaching staff alongside Franz Schiemer and Cameron Toshack.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to help and support them during that really important transition period,” Jackson added.

“Moving from a head coach position with the Under-23s does mean I am in more of a supporting role now, but I comfortable with that. I feel I am ready to work with senior players and this is a great opportunity that I am enjoying.

“The way training looks has totally changed. “Marcelo wanted to coach with drill practices a lot of the time, whereas Jesse is more traditional and aligned with the way I was brought up as a coach.

"I love Leeds United, and it’s a club with massive potential. All I can say is that I am very happy working with Jesse, playing a style of football that I like"

Mark Jackson

“His sessions are not too far removed from what I experienced in my own playing career.

“Everything is more game-based, with possession practices replacing drill-based work, for example. This has helped me really because it’s what I was attuned to before and it is how I see football being coached.”

Session planning

During Bielsa’s four-year spell in charge, the Argentinian liked the Under-23 group to join first-team training.

While this gave the youngsters a fantastic opportunity to catch the manager’s eye, it did leave Jackson, who assisted those sessions, short on time to make specific tactical preparations for Premier League 2 matches.

One key difference since the regime changed hands is an increase in joined-up thinking between members of the coaching staff, reveals Jackson.

“Session planning was extremely challenging under the previous manager, as decisions were often made at the last minute.

"I might not know what we were going to focus on before we went out to train, and sometimes we’d be 10 minutes into the warm-up, and I still couldn’t be sure what the session was going to entail.

Jesse Marsch
Marsch has had a huge effect at the club, both in terms of results on the pitch and his support to the coaches on the training pitch

“Now, we sit down the day before as a team of coaches - in a meeting that Jesse will lead - and together we discuss what we want to achieve from that next session.

“My role on the grass is flexible from day to day. At times I might break off with one of the other coaches to work on an element of our play from a defensive point of view.

“It might be that myself or Cameron [Toshack] take the scout team for an 11v11 against the starting XI. There it will be my responsibility to replicate how our next opposition play and assign roles to the players in that scout team.

“The great thing for me is that we have this planning process now. And in that process, Jesse doesn’t dictate to us.

“He will ask for opinions on what we should be doing, and how we do it. It’s been such a valuable experience so far, and I feel it’s a great quality for a manager to have that sense of inclusivity.”

Experiences to treasure 

During a pulsating run-in, Leeds were involved in several dramatic matches where they grabbed valuable late goals.

They scored stoppage-time winners against Norwich City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Brentford and Pascal Struijk’s last-minute equaliser in their penultimate match at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, was also priceless.

Being part of those astonishing twists and turns provided Jackson with experiences he will treasure.

“I see Leeds United as my club, it is where I grew up, so to be part of those moments, so close to it, was really special.

“After the euphoria and jubilation of Joe Gelhardt’s winner against Norwich, I remember saying to Jesse in the dressing-room that, believe it or not, this is quite normal for Leeds, and funnily enough that’s how it panned out in the closing weeks.

Matchday preparations

“Jesse always makes the final decisions, but throughout a game, he will turn around and ask for opinions. If I have an idea or a view on something tactical, or a possible change, he is the kind of manager that welcomes you bringing that forward.

"“Our use of video clips at half-time is something that I hadn’t seen before, and I have to say it can be an incredibly effective tool"

Mark Jackson

"Frank [Schiemer] is in constant dialogue with the analysts about which clips we want to show, and he will nip off a few minutes early to get them ready for the interval.

"And while the players are settling down, Jesse and the rest of us will review the clips before he presents them.

“In the past managers have told players they think they can do this or that better, but the players had to take their word for it.

"Now, we can actually show players on a screen what they are doing well, areas to improve, and how we can exploit the opposition. It is really, really beneficial.”

Appreciation for Bielsa

The sudden departure of Bielsa stunned Leeds fans, who continue to revere the 60-year-old for the quality of football his sides delivered.

Jackson is keen to point out how much he also values the experience of working alongside a manager with such a distinctive outlook.

“Marcelo and the rest of his staff were great with me when I was the Under-23s head coach. They shared their ideas and were always open to answering any questions I had.

“It was a unique style of football, so I had to spend a lot of time observing them, analysing their drills, and being around the group.

"I had to learn exactly what was required for me to transmit that philosophy to the Under-23s. It was an education.”

Mark Jackson, Leeds United

One of the primary quirks of Bielsa’s ideas is based around choosing a formation dictated to by how the opposition line up.

If, for example, an opponent play with one striker, it would usually mean a back four for Leeds. This would revert to a three-man defence when facing two strikers.

“Alongside our excellent analysts we had to do a lot of scouting beforehand, studying how other Under-23 teams set up. That research was thorough and a real team effort” explains Jackson.

“As soon as the team sheet came in we’d have a good idea of the formation we’d be up against, so then we would adjust our own shape accordingly.

“To operate in this way the players knew we had to have two or three systems in mind, ready to go.

“I had to coach my players so that they could easily deal with adaptability. This meant setting them up with a variety of ideas so that when an opponent altered their shape, we were able to react quickly within the game.

“It was something we got to grips with and looking back we were fairly successful with it, too.

“The funny thing is I am convinced certain managers I came up against tried to deliberately disrupt us, by throwing in a new formation unexpectedly,” he adds with a smile.

“We were used to it, but the main challenge for me was knowing whether to drop a defensive midfielder into the back three, or sliding one of the full-backs inside. Or flipping that around the other way.

“This was a challenging way to manage because we also had to make a lot of enforced substitutions in order to adjust.

"That said, the experience taught me to take certain considerations into every match you play and to investigate each eventuality beforehand so that you are ready to react.”

Valuable experiences

At the back end of a playing career where the former defender represented Scunthorpe United, Kidderminster Harriers and Rochdale, Jackson went through his coaching badges as a semi-pro with non-league Farsley.

"I have coached at every level, among all the age groups, with differing abilities and I firmly believe that has helped me massively in my own career"

Mark Jackson

He worked as head of football at Leeds City College, coached at Bradford City for a short period, while also working in local primary schools, before Leeds came knocking.

According to Jackson, each of those early roles were tremendously valuable to his learning.

“Someone asked me a while back for advice on how to succeed in coaching and my best advice was to give yourself a vast array of experiences,” he says.

“I have coached at every level, among all the age groups, with differing abilities and I firmly believe that has helped me massively in my own career.

“The one constant that you need to have, no matter which level you are coaching at is adaptability in my opinion. Being able to adjust to any given situation or circumstance helps you deal with problems when they present themselves.

“If you can think on your feet and put something in place to fix a situation quickly, that is half the battle.

“The other piece of advice I would always pass on is, to connect with your players.

“I remember being on a course once where all the coaches were discussing their philosophies, systems, tactics etc, but I look at it a different way.

“I told them my philosophy is based around connecting with players. If you can’t get them on board or understand how to treat every individual, it can be an uphill battle. Building a rapport is vital.”

Future ambitions

Looking into the future, Jackson harbours ambitions to manage at first-team level and to help facilitate that, he is hoping to enrol on a UEFA Pro License course as quickly as possible.

In the short term though, he is hoping that Marsch decides to make him part of the first-team set-up for next season and beyond.

“Since I came back to Elland Road the club have been so supportive to me and given me so many great opportunities to develop as a coach. The progression has felt natural until this point and I am hoping that continues.

“The way I look at my own career is to simply hone my skills every day, because you never stop learning.

“I love Leeds United, and it’s a club with massive potential. All I can say is that I am very happy working with Jesse, playing a style of football that I like.

“If I can play a part in helping even more young players make it into the Leeds United first team, that’s what it’s all about.”

Also in this series

Part 1: Betsy: Focus on being the best coach you can
Part 2: Why Arsenal lead the way for counter-attacking goals
Part 3: Hobbs: Support for coaches is incredibly important
Part 4: Binnion: League helps take me out of my comfort zone as a coach

Latest News

More News: Latest News

Latest Videos

More Videos: Latest Videos