Two weeks after dismissing Jesse Marsch as head coach, relegation fighters Leeds United have secured Javi Gracia as his replacement.
Not to be confused with former Real Madrid and Manchester City midfielder Javi Garcia, the 52-year-old was in charge of Watford for an unprecedented 19 months before being sacked in September 2019.
Leeds are without a win since Bonfire Night, so will the Spaniard spark a surge up the table and what Fantasy Premier League (FPL) impact will he have?
We’ll attempt to answer those questions below.
Basque-born Gracia was a defensive midfielder whose playing career included spells at Real Sociedad and Villarreal.
Upon retirement, early coaching years were spent at Pontevedra, Cadiz and Villarreal B before a couple of tasks in Greece.
In 2013, he led Almeria back into the Spanish top flight and soon took over at Osasuna. Relegating his hometown club didn’t deter Malaga from taking him on, whom he then led to ninth and eighth-placed finishes.
|2021/22||Al-Sadd||Qatar Stars League||1st||12||1||0|
|2016/17||Rubin Kazan||Russian Premier Liga||9th||10||8||12|
* these league positions are taken at the time of Gracia’s departure
Gracia rocked up at Watford halfway through the 2017/18 campaign following the dismissal of Marco Silva. After surviving the summer, he led the Hornets to 11th place – their highest-ever Premier League finish – as well as the 2019 FA Cup final.
Yet the season ended with no clean sheet in their final 12 matches, before a 6-0 humbling at Wembley against Manchester City.
Knowing how the Pozzo family works at Watford, Gracia was sacked for continuing this form when losing the first three games of 2019/20. Replaced by Quique Sanchez Flores 30 minutes later, at least he has the honour of being the longest-serving head coach during the Pozzo era.
A spell at Valencia was followed by time as Al-Sadd’s boss once Barcelona came calling for Xavi. He won the Qatar Stars League with them but left in June 2022, waiting for an exciting opportunity such as Leeds to come up.
Using his full season at Watford as a starting point, he tends to prefer a 4-4-2 formation where the pair of wide midfielders drift inside as inverted playmakers and create a 4-2-2-2.
|Goals scored||xG||Goals conceded||xGC||Clean sheets|
Up front was Troy Deeney and either Gerard Deulofeu or Andre Gray, with Roberto Pereyra and Will Hughes (£4.8m) being the aforementioned wide midfielders next to the solid base of Abdoulaye Doucoure (£5.3m) and Etienne Capoue
Such a narrow midfield box allows attacking full-backs to provide width – in this case Daryl Janmaat, Kiko Femenia and Jose Holebas.
“He is very big on pressing and pushing higher up the pitch. There’s a lot of high-intensity running, closing down and closing the space. We’re quite aggressive as well.
“We’re blessed with the type of players who can play that way, and not every team can do it. Managers might go into other clubs and want to play a certain way, but if they haven’t got the jigsaw pieces to make the puzzle, it isn’t going to work.” – former Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster, speaking in 2018
Gracia tends to prefer directness over possession, which is why he puts a target man alongside a more mobile forward. In Qatar, he did go more attacking, although that’s likely due to another strength of his – an ability to arrive mid-season and adapt to the players at his disposal.
“He had the experience to realise that in the situation we were in, midway through a season, he couldn’t do anything radical. But he made important improvements nonetheless.” – Troy Deeney in his autobiography
On the surface, his philosophy on pressing is not too dissimilar to Marsch’s tactics, meaning he’ll arrive at Elland Road with a ready-made set of personnel.
He must’ve realised this potential when doing his pre-interview research. Reports say that Gracia convinced Leeds that he was the right man by providing an analytical presentation of how Southampton defeated Chelsea last Saturday.
That’s because his first match in charge is a huge bottom-of-the-table home clash against the Saints. Currently 19th and 20th, both sides are embroiled in a relegation dogfight and Gracia must begin with three points.
Either way, our Season Ticker ranks Leeds’ upcoming fixtures as fourth-best over the next ten Gameweeks.
It was announced on Tuesday that they are one of 12 teams to have a Double Gameweek 29, although this could follow a Blank Gameweek 28 should they defeat Fulham in the FA Cup fifth round.
As for prospects, top scorer Rodrigo (£6.3m) is injured until April and it’ll be interesting to see if Wilfried Gnonto (£5.1m) keeps starting. He has begun every match since the Gameweek 17 restart and, in this time, leads the way (pun intended) for their goal attempts (15), shots on target (7) and chances created (12).
The youngster has been drifting inside from the left flank but perhaps, with 4-4-2 in mind, Gracia may start Gnonto up front, making him a good, budget-enabling cheap FPL forward.
Even so, be aware that they’ve only scored in one of their last five outings. With a new head coach and a possible Blank Gameweek 28, it’s very much wait-and-see for Leeds assets.