The old new coach

What went wrong for Javi Gracia?

Written by: Moxcowhite • Daniel Chapman
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
An image showing Javi Gracia looking very concerned, in triplicate

I’ve been trying all season to work out what a football manager does in the Premier League now and how much it matters. My feeling is that the attention on their work far exceeds what they’re able to influence. They’re the only people contractually obliged to speak to the press and their fragile job security feels like a consequence of that availability. In American sports, players are willing to talk to reporters in locker rooms after games, so accountability is not so invested in one person. For example, if he played baseball, Illan Meslier would probably have answered questions about his form over the past few weeks. In the Premier League, it’s up to the manager to answer to the press for him, and in the eyes of the fans his job is to sort his goalie out or get fired.

The singular attention inflates coaches to miracle workers. What was Frank Lampard supposed to do at Chelsea, a week before they played Real Madrid? What is Sam Allardyce supposed to do for Leeds at Manchester City this weekend, and in three games in three weeks after that? Leeds United’s board, apparently, have been concerned that Javi Gracia is not enough of a motivator, so that’s why Big Sam is in, but how does this work? Last weekend the players were not motivated. This weekend, with Allardyce, they will be motivated. The players are still the same leaden bunch so this must be alchemy, which must be why it’ll be worth £3m to Allardyce if it works and Leeds stay up. And £500,000 to him if it doesn’t.

Looming over all this at Elland Road is Marcelo Bielsa, coaching’s greatest argument, the man who took six weeks to turn Paul Heckingbottom’s static Leeds into three years of forward motion. Is he simply a genius? It’s possible. Pep Guardiola’s comments about him say something for that. “Give him my Barcelona and you will see how he will win titles,” he said a year ago. “Give me Leeds, with all due respect to the Leeds players, but I would still be in the Championship.” But I wonder if this doesn’t say more about what Guardiola thinks a club needs. There’s little doubt that Guardiola is as close as anyone to being the best coach in the world, so why wouldn’t he succeed at Leeds in the Championship? Because building a club is about more than choosing one coach. At Barcelona, Guardiola benefited from the years of work at La Masia, the youth academy that gave him a team. At Manchester City, he’s had seven years of state funding from Abu Dhabi tailoring the organisation to his every need. If he can’t be the coach he is without the structures that give him Lionel Messi or Erling Haaland, how much of a game is then down to the coach, and how much due to the brilliant players?

That’s why putting Michael Skubala in charge of Leeds felt like an interesting experiment this season. No philosophies, no unifying ideas, no grand theories. Just the basics: prepare the players for the next opponent and send them out to do their thing. Would this work, simply plugging a coach into the existing organisation, like in the pre-war days when a trainer did the bidding of a board and a selection committee? Well, maybe if the organisation at Leeds hadn’t been such a bin fire, we’d have discovered something more about that. Skubala at Manchester City would be an interesting experiment. Skubala at Leeds was only going one way.

We can say pretty much the same, now, about Javi Gracia. Gracia was like an extended remix of Skubes, living in the moment, taking the team game by game to, he hoped, safety. In eleven games he did not manage that, but as the speculation increased about his security in a job that was billed as temporary, some rare anger came through from Gracia in his press conferences and in his farewell statement as he pointed out that he had made things better. Leeds were 19th when he arrived. He left them in 16th, outside the relegation places. In eleven games he got three wins. Jesse Marsch’s record was four wins in twenty. Under Marsch, United’s points per game average was 0.9. Gracia’s was 1.0. A point per game across the season would have us 15th now, and 38 at the end should be enough to survive. The problem for Gracia was four defeats in five games, three of them heavy, going into matches with Manchester City and Newcastle. It would be better, the board concluded, to have Sam Allardyce yelling at and/or cajoling the players before those games, so Gracia was told to leave.

After his first six games Gracia had three wins and a draw, and was averaging 1.67 points per game — European qualification form. Where did that improvement go? Half-time against Crystal Palace is an obvious moment that has been speculated about, but I wonder about that. Leeds were cruising the first half but, after conceding a stoppage time equaliser, collapsed quickly and dramatically in the second half, losing 5-1. The other side of the story, though, is that Palace were garbage in the first half, and if Roy Hodgson had got ninety minutes from them at their second half standard, Leeds might only have suffered a very ordinary 4-0 defeat instead of lurching theatrically from high to low.

Less abrupt, but more significant I think, was losing Tyler Adams to a hamstring injury after the 2-2 draw with Brighton. Wins followed against Wolves and Nottingham Forest, but the chaotic 4-2 win at Molineux was followed by a 4-1 defeat to Arsenal and a new soft centre was showing. Teams have taken easy advantage of it ever since. For most of the season Adams was a strong candidate in a weak field for player of the year, thanks to his almost Battyesque penchant for running towards danger when others are yet to see it. Marc Roca or Weston McKennie, or both, make sense with Adams alongside them. Without him, they might as well not be there. Without him the defence is unprotected, as the midfield is too ponderous to help; the forwards don’t get the ball, and when you compare pass completion — Adams 82.5%, McKennie 76.8%, Roca 75.9%, you start to see why.

It shouldn’t all hinge on one midfielder, but that’s the structure Guardiola alluded to. It’s as close as Gracia same to criticising his employers, too, when he welcomed Adam Forshaw back to the bench. “He’s a centre midfielder,” said Gracia, “and as you know, we don’t have many options in that position.” Attention was all on Wilf Gnonto, and why the tiny talisman, Leeds’ most exciting and most dangerous player, was not starting. Gracia might have helped himself if he’d explained that more fully, made a bigger deal of Jackie Harrison and Luis Sinisterra assisting and scoring from the positions Gnonto might play, or if he’d pointed out that attacking was far from his biggest problem. He’d been given charge of a squad designed to suit Marsch’s frantic, aggressive football, and been asked to make them play a calmer, safer game. Trying to do that without Tyler Adams was like trying to piece together a charity shop jigsaw without the box.

A decent guy, then, and probably a decent coach, but Javi Gracia didn’t turn out to have the answer for what a coach does, or for our expectations of what a coach can do. In his farewell letter to fans, Gracia says three times that he was confident of ‘achieving the objective’, adding for good measure that, ‘We are not talking about miracles, but about the efficient result of a well done work and a process of improvement’. I think he had, in his quiet but steely way, a glint in his eye for six points against West Ham and Spurs. Leeds have decided, with their now habitual desperation, to get Big Sam instead to rouse things up. What this will prove, or what Roy Hodgson has proven at Palace or Neil Warnock at Huddersfield, will stay obscure, because although Gracia says football is not about miracles, miracles still have a better rep in some boardrooms than science, because so many are attempted each season that a few will come off and make the idea, of miracles, stay tempting.

Sam Allardyce won’t fix any of the problems with Leeds United that Javi Gracia couldn’t fix. But he might do enough in four games for his £3m, or he might not, and settle for half a million. If this says something about modern coaching, maybe it says more about the people hiring the coaches. I look forward to Leeds CEO Angus Kinnear’s next protest against government regulation of football, justified by the idea that everyone in the Premier League knows exactly what they’re doing and doesn’t need anyone from outside interfering with their meticulous and intelligent work. If we’ve learned something from this season, at Leeds and at Chelsea and at Southampton and everywhere else, it’s that nobody should be falling for that one anymore. ⬢


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Horse Racine
The cover of TSB 22-23 issue 08, by Graeme Chapman, a collage of a club gone wrong
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Andrea Radrizzani, Victor Orta, and Angus Kinnear sitting in the posh seats at Elland Road, wondering why everyone else is making mistakes
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Tom Jennings, his leg outstretched after kicking a shot probably into the net, in front of the numbers 25/26, in front of another image of Jennings playing for Leeds
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Rod Wallace playing for Leeds, in front of the numbers 92/93, and another image of Mark Beeney playing in goal
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