Leeds United, between now and the end of the season, will travel to Chelsea and Manchester City, while hosting Arsenal, Newcastle United, Liverpool and – on the final day – Tottenham Hotspur. A daunting schedule, to say the least.

Javi Gracia’s track record against the biggest clubs, however, should give the Elland Road faithful some hope of a few shock results over the next three months. His Malaga side went unbeaten against Real Madrid in 2015/16. Gracia masterminded a famous 1-0 win over Barcelona at the Camp Nou too; a rock-solid backline keeping that infamous Luis Suarez, Neymar, Lionel Messi frontline at arms’ length. 

Gracia also defeated Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid back in 2016 and, upon returning to La Liga two years ago, handed Real one of their heaviest domestic defeats in recent memory; that 4-1 thumping at the Mestalla the highlight of his short-lived Valencia reign. 

Most of those results were achieved, meanwhile, with Gracia’s favoured 4-2-2-2 formation; an organised, high-pressing system which should, in theory, suit the set of players he inherits on the back of Jesse Marsch’s frustrating 12 month stint at Elland Road. 

Javi Gracia signs short-term deal at Leeds United

Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images

“The lads have bought into his ideas, and he puts it across really well. He’s calm, not a ranter and raver, and the players appreciate that,” former Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster once told The Mirror of Gracia, who guided the Hornets to their best-ever Premier League finish and an FA Cup final before being harshly sacked just a few weeks into 2019/20. 

“He is very big on pressing and pushing higher up the pitch. The main thing is work-rate. There’s a lot of high-intensity running, closing down and closing the space. We’re quite aggressive as well. 

In that sense, Gracia is not a million miles away from what came before in West Yorkshire. And, in truth, would be foolish for Leeds to bring in a coach completely at odds with the aggressive, high-energy approach favoured by Marsch and Marcelo Bielsa. This is, after all, a Leeds squad constructed in their image. And it’s not as if Gracia has a full pre-season to put an entirely different stamp on things. 

The Pamplona-born 52-year-old, Leeds hope, will bring evolution rather than revolution. 

A new role for Gnonto?

Both Marsch and Bielsa preferred to station their wide players close to the touchline. One of the big changes Gracia may introduce is a more inverted system. Gerard Deulofeu and Roberto Pereyra, wingers by trade, thrived in central roles at Vicarage Road; the former scoring Watford’s first ever Premier League hat-trick against Cardiff City while lining up through the middle. 

Luis Sinisterra, Crysencio Summerville, Georginio Rutter and, in particular, Wilfried Gnonto could thrive in a similar role; given the freedom to showcase their ball-carrying ability and explosive pace closer to the opposition’s goal. Gnonto, one of the revelations of this season, struggled to influence things out wide in Leeds’ recent defeats to Manchester United and Everton, with something more akin to a ‘free role’ potentially offsetting concerns of the club’s most threatening forward being marked out of the game. 

Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Flexibility is key

On paper, the likes of Jack Harrison and Brenden Aaronson may not be a natural fit for Gracia’s 4-2-2-2 system. Again, however, we need only look at the Spaniard’s Watford team to realise that Gracia is a far more flexible tactician than his rather old-school formation may suggest. Will Hughes often started on the right-hand side, drifting into something more akin to an orthodox ‘number ten’ role. Don’t be surprised to see Aaronson fulfil similar duties on the right, with Harrison’s energy and intensity integral on the left. 

And, in the tireless Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, Gracia has two combative central midfielders who could do for Leeds what Abdoulaye Doucoure and Etienne Capoue did for his Watford side. 

The good news for Patrick Bamford, meanwhile, is that Gracia also likes to play with a number nine capable of providing a link between midfield and attack. See Troy Deeney at Watford, Charles at Malaga, and Maxi Gomez at Valencia.

‘He will work very well for Leeds’

Gracia, meanwhile, may have a reputation as something of a pragmatic manager (which is not necessarily a bad thing given Leeds’ defensive record) but he is not wedded to those ways. His Watford side scored 52 Premier League goals in 2018/19; more then ten other teams in the division. 

“He is a manager that doesn’t have just one style,” La Liga expert Guillem Balague tells the BBC. “He adapts to the types of players he has. 

“That is why he will work very well for Leeds. Because, if they have to become more defensive, he will be able to adjust that. If they need more goals, he will also be able to do it in training.  

“I have been to see him a few times in old jobs. And he develops a very close relationship with players. “He knows what is required. He’s when he has to be, raises his voice when he has to. He convinces players by working with them, not imposing his personality. (Gracia) is a great reader of games.” 

Predicting Javi Gracia’s Leeds United XI (GRV Media-owned image)

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