Why Leeds United turned to ‘street smart’ Javi Gracia and what to expect

Javi Gracia’s Leeds United interview and presentation focused heavily on the club’s recent matches, but while he had to prepare, he spent some of it picking at Chelsea’s defeat to Southampton last Saturday. Gracia offered ideas about what went wrong at Leeds and how they could improve quickly, but beyond that, he wanted the hierarchy at Elland Road to see how well he was ready for the biggest game of the season by a mile.

Southampton at Elland Road this weekend, 19th to 20th in the Premier League, and such high pressure Leeds did not expect Michael Skopala, their Under-21 manager, to carry his weight. As of this time last week, Skopala was in charge of the ‘upcoming games’ – which, without saying so in so many words, meant Everton and Southampton as a minimum, but failing to put a gauntlet on Everton at Goodison Park over the weekend stood him. The terrible Leeds is in sharpest focus. Their frantic pursuit of a new head coach returned, ending at Gracia’s door.

Skubala will remain close to the first team as part of the training squad Gracia is assembling at Thorp Arch, but Everton fell behind with Leeds. There was a world of difference between throwing Skubala two consecutive matches against Manchester United in the space of five days and burdening him with the responsibility of fending off relegation.

Gracia was contacted 48 hours after the encounter at Goodison Park and presented to the club’s board of directors, including officials from 49ers Enterprises, in time to fly to England on Monday. His review of Southampton’s 1-0 win over Chelsea was an attempt to convince them he was ready for the immediate hurdle in front of him.

Gracia, 52, unemployed since his apprenticeship in Qatar ended last year, well traveled and 18 months in the Premier League at Watford from January 2018. Not demanding in negotiations at Leeds, he seems happy to prove himself in the short term and then discuss the long term .

His reign at Vicarage Road was typical of the managerial circus that Watford was under owner Gino Pozzo. In the 2018-19 season, Watford finished 11th – their best in the Premier League – and reached the FA Cup Final. Gracia was sacked four league matches in the following season. But what he did first, succeeding Marco Silva in January 2018, was his success in keeping the touchdown at arm’s length.

Gracia led Watford to the FA Cup Final in 2019 (Picture: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Leeds have taken note of this, although these are, it should be said, no match for Elland Road. Five years ago, Gracia secured a Watford side that finished 10th in the Premier League, albeit just six points off the bottom of the crowded table. They lost half of their 24 matches, a record that caused Pozos’ rarely to give up on Silva, whose flirtation with Everton caused the relationship to fall apart.. Gracia led the club to 41 points and 14th place, and was problem-free heading into the final weeks of the season. In his autobiography, Redemption ex-Watford striker Troy Deeney, the club’s captain at the time, described Gracia as intelligent and “street smart”.

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“He had the experience to realize that in the situation we were in, in the middle of the season, he couldn’t have done anything drastic,” Denny wrote. “But he made important improvements nonetheless.”

Others at Watford had the same impression of Gracia. Another senior figure, who requested anonymity after Pozos’ decision to sack Gracia in September 2019, said he had created a “positive atmosphere, on and off the field” with the help of a strong identity. Gracia had his philosophy as a coach and he communicated it clearly. Watford fans also had time. When the Bozos sacked him it was not an issue as his supporters were expelling him from Vicarage Road. Many saw this move as downright cruel.

Gracia, who started on a renewable contract but quickly secured a four-and-a-half-year deal, was settled in England at that point. He had bought a house in Hemel Hempstead and his children attended school locally. Adrian Mariappa, one of his defenders, found his exit baffling. “I’ve never been a fan of changing managers every time something gets difficult,” said Mariappa. the athlete. “I always felt Javi was going to turn it around. You need to give someone a fair crack of the whip. There are times when things can’t be saved but four games into a season that’s too early.”

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The club’s then technical director in 2019, Filippo Giraldi, echoed this view. “My view – not the club’s – is that we should have given him more time,” Giraldi said.

In his full term as boss, Gracia’s team has been energetic and competitive, settling safely into mid-table. Their final appearance in the FA Cup was achieved through an impressive 3-2 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the semi-final at Wembley, a game in which Watford trailed 2-0 after 79 minutes. Gerard Deulofeu, who had been controversially dropped to the bench by Gracia, appeared in the 66th minute and made an impact with extraordinary rolls first and then, after equalizing from a Troy Deeney penalty in the last minute, an extra-time winner. “My year with Javi was great,” said Deulofeu. the athlete In March 2021.

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Watford at the time had a strong group of professionals including Richarlison, Roberto Pereira, Etienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucoure. Denny was a vocal captain who led the class and kept the dressing room on message. The club loaned Deulofeu from Barcelona before the end of the January window in which Gracia was appointed and subsequently made this signing permanent. Overall, Gracia had the quality to deliver on his initial goal of survival.

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The team at Leeds is not devoid of capabilities or potential, and in many ways it appears stronger and more capable on paper than it was on the field this season, but Gracia takes charge of a team that is far from normal. than win. Leeds have recorded four league wins all season, and have not recorded a victory since Bonfire Night. Away from the relatively plush six-point cushion Gracia initially had at Watford, Leeds are two points adrift of 17th.

What then is Gracia’s identity? And how is he likely to handle the challenge of turning Leeds into a team with enough knowledge, tenacity and understanding to reach safety in May?

Garcia is a quiet, reserved, down-to-earth, and polite coach who is not prone to outbursts. His ideas off the ball at Watford were fairly conventional in the modern sense: lots of high-intensity running, good levels of pressing and a commitment to keeping a relatively high line-up on the field, with a heavy emphasis on work-rate.

Ironically, given the results that led to Leeds sacking Jesse Marsh this month, Gracia was not opposed to using his own form of the 4-2-2-2 system that Marsh had worked on in his Red Bull days and used from time to time at Elland Road. Watford, with the Spaniard in place, moved away from the 3-4-3 favored by Silva and used a mixture of 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 formations in the opening phase. from his mandate.

Gracia relied on the midfield base established by Capoue and Doucoure, and would eventually deploy them in a double-six combination, with Pereira and Will Hughes in front of them. Perea and Hughes often formed a tight, square midfield behind what was effectively the partnership of Deeney and Deulofeu up front. It can be thought of as a 4-4-2 setup, but in the flesh, it often looks like a 4-2-2-2.

Gracia succeeded Marco Silva at Watford at the start of 2018 (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

While Doucouré and Kabwe were more than sitting anchors – encouraged to go forward and counter-attack – Hughes, a left-footed right-footer, and Pereira, right-footed left-footed, were turned over and Pereira, albeit comfortable with both, would fold and spin. Gracia encouraged the fullbacks to go forward and contribute offensively, especially if the midfield was tight. At Leeds, Gracia will find players with similar tactics. The trick for him would be to make them a little less crazy and less chaotic than they were under Marsh—and, as a consequence, more effective. He has 15 games to start but, despite that, it’s not necessarily the time to make major adjustments.

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Gracia’s 20-month tenure at Watford is, by far, the longest of any manager during the Bozo era, a regime that has been in power for more than a decade. His performance was undeserving of the way he was fired. Although Watford have picked up just one point from their first four games of the 2019-20 season, he trained during the August international break, saying goodbye to his players on Friday and expecting to see them again on Monday. He was fired via a phone call to his agent while he was picking up his kids from school, without any warning.

Garcia spent a short time in his Spanish hometown of Pamplona after that, pondering the decision. He made a concerted effort to say little about it in public, to avoid causing trouble as Watford struggled to rank up the season. “I like to empathize with all people,” Gracia commented in a later interview with the athlete. “I understand you’re trying to change, you’re changing the manager. You’re trying to change the dynamic of everything and you have to be really clear and sometimes those are tough decisions. It’s football and you have to accept it.”

His coaching career has taken him from place to place without getting stuck anywhere for too long, but some notable assignments, such as managing Malaga’s youth team in 2014, did as much, if not more, as was expected of him. Valencia hired him after his departure from Watford, and although that period did not go well, Gracia’s point was that he had been sold to Peter Lim, the owner of Valencia, as a pipe dream. Key players left after Gracia’s appointment and the signings he had expected, or been told to expect, did not materialize. Gracia tried to resign but remained in his post after being told he would have to pay around 3 million pounds ($3.6 million) to trigger his release clause. He was sacked without completing a full term, with Valencia six points clear of the relegation places in La Liga.

From there, it was all about Al Sadd in Qatar, where Gracia won the league title last year, but for him, England is a return to the heart of European football.

Leeds were in no position to pretend to him that he was their high-profile option to replace Marsh, but a search that began with Rayo Vallecano player Andoni Iraola as the club’s main target turned pragmatic after Saturday’s defeat to Everton, leaving Leeds staring into the abyss.

They count that Gracia’s experience is enough to get them out of the woods and his presentation to them seals the deal. His first test on the horizon: the great challenge of applying his ideas on how to beat a must-win match against Southampton.

(Top photo: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)

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