Watford manager Javi Gracia celebrates after the final whistle during the Premier League match at the Cardiff City Stadium.

Javi Gracia & a 26-pass move to give Leeds hope of sexy football again

Monday will mark exactly a year to the day since Leeds United sacked their era-defining manager Marcelo Bielsa. 

The last 365 days have had their moments, but have been largely pretty miserable for Leeds. Like Jesse Marsch before him, Javi Gracia arrives at Elland Road with just one remit – keep the club in the Premier League. But his track record can give fans hope of sexy football again.

It was always going to be a tough job following a coach that gave so much to Leeds as Bielsa did. Just ask Unai Emery about his stint at Arsenal or David Moyes about his time at Old Trafford. It’s not easy being the guy after the guy.

When Marsch was appointed as Bielsa’s successor a year ago, he was billed by the Leeds board as a natural successor to Bielsa.

“He had a great deal of success with New York Red Bulls and Red Bull Salzburg and has demonstrated during our many meetings that he is a great fit with the footballing culture of Leeds United,” chief executive Angus Kinnear promised.

“Jesse is someone we identified a number of years ago during his time at Red Bull Salzburg and we believe his philosophy and style of football aligns with that of the club and will suit the players very well,” added director of football Victor Orta.

“We have a long-term plan and firmly believe he can take Leeds United to the next level and are excited for what the future holds.”

After a series of last-gasp dramatics, Marsch kept up his side of the bargain. Leeds survived after an exhausting final few weeks of the 2021-22 campaign. The football wasn’t especially pretty, but there’s an argument he bought himself the benefit of the doubt.

Over the course of two transfer windows, signing three American compatriots and four players he’d worked with before, Marsch was backed with a squad built in his image.

It wouldn’t be fair to say there wasn’t anything. There was a brilliant 3-0 win over Chelsea. An excellent performance against Arsenal, albeit without the result to show for it. Points taken from Liverpool and Manchester United after a dismal record against the Super League six last season.

But never did Leeds put together a convincing run, either in terms of results or performances. Every step forward was followed by three steps back.

Over the course of Marsch’s year at the helm, it became clear that Orta’s promise of continuity, of building on the foundations left by Bielsa, had not come to fruition.

There was the energy and intensity, granted, but little else. All of the sophistication, beauty and nuance of Bielsa’s football had been stripped away. Leeds were left with a cocaine-fuelled version of the narrow and direct football reminiscent of Neil Warnock.

Marsch as a successor to Bielsa felt like hiring Michael Bay to direct the sequel to David Lynch’s magnum opus Mulholland Drive.

Every so often clips of well-worked passing goals from the Bielsa era would do the rounds of social media, prompting sighs across the fanbase. Look at what we had.

“The goal is in the middle on the end line and so when we win balls, we don’t want to run to the corner. We want to run to the middle of the pitch where the goal is and that’s how you score goals,” Marsch told reporters, shortly before he was sacked, giving alarm bells that his tactical plan was exactly as uncomplicated as it looked.

The more effective parts of Marsch’s football saw Leeds produce two decent performances against old enemy Manchester United, drawing 2-2 at Old Trafford before a spirited display in a 2-0 defeat at Elland Road.

But the nature of Leeds’ 1-0 defeat away to relegation rivals Everton shone a harsher light on the legacy. Under caretaker coach Michael Skubala, the Whites struggled to string two passes together at Goodison Park. They failed to register a single shot on target and created next to nothing by way of openings.

It left you with the feeling that over the course of the past year, the players had been so thoroughly reprogrammed that they’d forgotten how to play football.

No team in the Premier League averages less time on the ball per sequence of play and nobody moves it forward quicker (per Opta’s Jamie Kemp). Rest in peace positional play and any semblance of an idea of what to do with the ball.

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Step forward, Javi Gracia. You’ve got quite the job on your hands.

It would be inaccurate to paint the Spanish coach as an aesthetic proponent of tiki-taka. Perhaps his finest moments came by winning points with beleaguered Malaga against Real Madrid and Barcelona, setting his team up to cede possession, defend stoutly and grind it out.

Unlike Marsch and Bielsa, Gracia doesn’t appear to be an ideologue with a defined idea of how to play football and win matches. He’s used a number of different formations, from narrow to expansive, over the course of his well-travelled coaching career. A pragmatist might be exactly what Leeds need.

You imagine a pragmatist would come in and diagnose where Leeds have been going wrong. It doesn’t take a footballing genius to identify the team’s limitations this season. To look at the Everton performance and put some passing drills on top of the agenda.

The good news for Leeds is that there’s evidence that he can drill a team to keep the ball and progress it to the opposition’s goal. Just look at this beautiful goal scored by his Watford side against Cardiff back in 2019.

The simple finish by Troy Deeney finished off a wonderful 26-pass move that cut through the Bluebirds’ backline like a knife through butter.

“He had the experience to realise that in the situation we were in, midway through a season, he couldn’t do anything radical,” Deeney recalled in his autobiography, Redemption. “But he made important improvements nonetheless.”

“He likes to play attacking football and he likes to try and press and probe and score goals,” former Hornets goalkeeper Ben Foster told talkSPORT.

“But he demands that you get back, the work rate has to be high and really intense as well. He enjoys people working but it’s the level of intensity that he really likes. When you’re forward and you lose the ball, you get back and you get back as quickly as possible.”

That sounds just the recipe for the situation Leeds find themselves in. Gracia won’t be judged on results, not on style, but there’s also hope he can bring sexy football back to Elland Road.

By Nestor Watach

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