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Leeds appoint ex-Watford boss Gracia to replace Marsch

Leeds appoint ex-Watford boss Gracia to replace Marsch

Leeds have appointed former Watford boss Javi Gracia as their new head coach on a ‘flexible contract’.

Jesse Marsch was sacked by the club on February 6 and U21s coach Michael Skubala took caretaker charge of the past three matches, but a 1-0 defeat on Saturday to relegation rivals Everton has left the club two points from safety.

Gracia, who kept Watford in the Premier League during the 2018-19 season and also led them to the FA Cup final, has been out of work since leaving Al Saad in Qatar last June.

Confirming Gracia’s appointment, Leeds said in a statement: “Leeds United are delighted to announce the club have agreed terms with Javi Gracia to become men’s first team head coach, subject to obtaining a work permit.

“The experienced 52-year-old has agreed a flexible contract at Elland Road.”

Leeds host rock-bottom Southampton in a crucial fixture on Saturday.

Why pragmatist Gracia makes sense for Leeds

Javi Gracia has been appointed as Leeds United's new head coach

Javi Gracia has been appointed as Leeds United’s new head coach

It remains to be seen whether Gracia will get the chance to oversee a full season in charge of Leeds. There is much to be done before that even becomes a consideration and it is no secret the 52-year-old was not their first choice to succeed Jesse Marsch.

But, given the circumstances, and while some Leeds supporters will need convincing over his credentials for the role, it is not difficult to see how the club’s decision-makers landed on him.

Gracia brings considerable experience, for a start, the former midfielder’s managerial career taking in spells in charge of 12 different clubs in five different countries, and two themes are consistent right across them.

“Above all, his teams are very organised, with a big commitment to helping each other,” said Unai Emery, a former team-mate and long-standing managerial opponent of Gracia’s, back in 2018.

Those traits were certainly evident at Malaga, where he secured back-to-back top-10 finishes in La Liga on a tight budget, taking points off Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid in the process, and again in the 2018/19 season at Watford, a side, like Gracia’s Malaga, defined by their togetherness, diligence and discipline.

They are qualities Leeds will need if they are to stay in the Premier League this season. Marsch spoke of progress before his sacking. On the pitch, though, chaos reigned. His team were too open, too easy to beat and, ultimately, too vulnerable to the threat of relegation.

Read Nick Wright’s full feature on Javi Gracia’s appointment here.

Gracia’s in-tray: Keep Leeds up

Javi Gracia

Javi Gracia has been out of work since leaving Al Saad in Qatar last June

Marsch succeeded in one aspect of his tenure by ensuring Leeds retained Premier League status last season and that will be Gracia’s top priority.

Forty-four per cent stakeholders 49ers Enterprises, the investment arm of San Francisco 49ers, have an option to own 100 per cent of the club and Elland Road stadium before January 2024 and while relegation would not necessarily scupper the deal, it would affect Leeds’ valuation and throw a spanner in the works of the current agreement, which depends on the club staying up.

Turn dominance into wins

Gracia must quickly figure out how to prevent Leeds from losing games they should have won, or at least have gained a point.

Marsch’s last match in charge, a 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest earlier this month, was typical of the pattern under the American. Leeds dominated possession and had long spells in the opposition’s half, only to concede soft goals from set pieces or on the counter-attack.

Defensive deficiency

Throughout Marsch’s tenure, the opposition rarely needed to create too many chances in order to score.

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Having committed men forward, Leeds often lost their defensive shape and as well as being vulnerable in transition, they have also continued to leak goals from set-pieces. The Whites conceded three or more goals in a game under Marsch on more occasions than they shut the opposition out.

Unleash attacking arsenal

Leeds appeared to have given Marsch their backing in the January transfer window.

Austria defender Max Wober and United States midfielder Weston McKennie have both been in the starting line-up, but Gracia must integrate club-record signing Georginio Rutter into his playing system.

The likes of Patrick Bamford, the injured Rodrigo, Luis Sinisterra, Willy Gnonto, Brenden Aaronson, Jack Harrison and Crysencio Summerville offer an abundance of attacking talent and the Spaniard must work out how best to use them.

Restore Leeds’ identity

The swarming, high-tempo attacking philosophy under revered former boss Marcelo Bielsa made way for a muddled version under Marsch. The American’s game-plan appeared chaotic, leaving fans and pundits confused, while his players seemed ill-at-ease with their roles.

Gracia’s teams have been renowned for being disciplined and hard to beat rather than playing free-flowing football.

Whatever his vision for Leeds is, he must translate it consistently on to the pitch, which Marsch was unable to do, and time is not on his side.

Analysis: Who did Leeds consider for the vacancy?

Leeds United's head coach Jesse Marsch during the English Premier League soccer match between Nottingham Forest and Leeds United at City ground in Nottingham, England, Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira)

Jesse Marsch was sacked by Leeds on March 6

Sky Sports’ Tim Thornton:

Last weekend’s defeat against Everton has opened up the prospect of Leeds slumping to the bottom of the table if they lose Saturday’s crucial home clash with Southampton, and the spotlight is quickly turning on those at the top of the club.

Leeds have been widely criticised for not having a replacement for Marsch lined up, and having taken the decision last week to put Under-21s manager Michael Skubala in charge for the upcoming games.

The reality is Leeds did have a shortlist of targets when they sacked Marsch and they did move quickly to try and replace him.

Sporting Director Victor Orta was leading the search for a new head coach, and he flew to both Spain and the Netherlands to try and seal a deal for those at the top of the club’s list of targets.

However, it quickly became clear that the leading contenders were unavailable mid-season, and it was the lack of an alternative plan that led to anger and frustration among fans.

Leeds were confident they could land Rayo Vallecano coach Andoni Iraola, but they underestimated how difficult it would be to prise him away from the LaLiga club, who blocked his exit.

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Tim Thornton provides an update on Leeds’ search for a new head coach. Former Watford manager Javi Gracia appears to be closing in on the position as he arrived for talks with the club.

Feyenoord coach Arne Slot was a similar situation. He has led his team to the top of the Eredivisie and the Dutch side made it clear they didn’t want to lose him.

Former River Plate boss Marcelo Gallardo also has his admirers at Elland Road, but it is understood he wants to start his next job at the beginning of a season.

Fans were chanting ‘sack the board’ at Everton on Saturday, and it was clear that the pressure was on for Orta and the club hierarchy to get their next call right.

Decision-making at boardroom level is linked to the planned sale of the club by chairman Andrea Radrizzani to minority shareholders 49ers Enterprises. And with that scenario edging closer, all parties involved are understandably keen to ensure that any decisions taken are in the best long-term interests of the club.

But Leeds haven’t won a Premier League since November, and have won just two of their last 20 matches.

They have to find a way of quickly altering the trajectory of the season, and if the mood among the fans is to change, that has to start with three points against Southampton at Elland Road on Saturday.

Gracia’s first 11 fixtures for Leeds

Kick-offs 3pm unless stated

February 25 – Southampton (H), Premier League

February 28 – Fulham (A), FA Cup fifth round

March 4 – Chelsea (H), Premier League

March 11 – Brighton (H), Premier League

March 18 – Wolves (A), Premier League

April 1 – Arsenal (A), Premier League

April 8 – Crystal Palace (H), Premier League, live on Sky Sports, kick-off 5.30pm

April 17 – Liverpool (H), Premier Live, live on Sky Sports, kick-off 8pm

April 22 – Fulham (H), Premier League, kick-off 12.30pm

April 25 – Leicester (H), Premier League, kick-off 8pm

April 29 – Bournemouth (A), Premier League

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