Javi Gracia is a football manager.
Leeds aren’t quite at the stage where that alone means it’s de facto a good appointment, but also they’re not far off. They’ve made a mess of this succession, and if the end result is a manager who had a better-than-average Premier League record for Watford – both in terms of results and longevity – then at the very least it could have been far, far worse.
The last few weeks have not gone well for Leeds.
It was becoming clear that Jesse Marsch probably wasn’t the answer, but there was and remains a significant sunk-cost with the Marsch project. A lot of assorted Red Bull alumni have been signed on his specific recommendation and joined the club specifically because the American was there. Plenty of them are very good footballers and aren’t exactly deadweight under a new manager – and all footballers must be prepared for the very high likelihood of this scenario – but there’s no denying this is not what they signed up for.
The timing of Marsch’s departure was bungled. If you’re sacking your manager in the first week of February, it’s a double victory for silliness and a clear admission that something has gone badly wrong. You create two related problems, as Leeds have discovered: you a) can’t do anything at all to instantly reshape the squad for a new manager, which b) puts plenty of prospective managers right off the idea.
Which brings us to the other mistake Leeds made for a club in the relegation quagmire: sacking a manager without both a very clear idea of who you want instead and an even clearer idea of whether they are actually interested.
But none of that means it was wrong to get rid. A messy divorce is better than a loveless, embittered marriage even if it does mean you go and get inevitably Dyched by going into a massive relegation six-pointer without a manager. That metaphor lost its way horribly towards the end there, but you get the idea.
Having thus f**ked it, Leeds now might actually have come out of this… not too bad.
Nobody is going to be dancing in the streets of West Yorkshire about the seemingly imminent appointment of Gracia. He is even less likely than Marsch to replace Marcelo Bielsa in the fans’ affections. But it’s not immediately clear who could do that. Certainly not Rafa Benitez, Nuno Espirito Santo or anybody else in the shrinking pool of people who might take the job.
But he is a decent football manager. He is better than plenty of those they pursued and this is a step up from the sort of ‘better than nothing’ appointment that was starting to feel worryingly likely. Is it the best possible appointment? Absolutely not. Are Leeds significantly more likely to avoid relegation today than they were yesterday? Absolutely yes.
It’s not exciting, but it’s pretty sensible. Leeds don’t necessarily do sensible. Even appointing Bielsa couldn’t really be described as sensible. It was brilliant and thrilling and revolutionary and transformative, but there was nothing at all sensible about it. It was part of what made it so great.
Needs must, though. This is a sensible if uninspiring move that should make Leeds less shit in a relegation fight whose breadth and startling lack of overall quality means ‘less shit’ could well be enough. At the most basic level, anything close to replicating the 1.32 points per game from his Watford days would be sufficient for the immediate task at hand.
He was in charge of Watford for over a season and a half which, once you recalculate in Watford years, places him somewhere between Wenger at Arsenal and Fergie at United. His one full season included an FA Cup final and cosy mid-table finish after a brief August flirtation with something even more after the season began with four wins from four.
He can deliver a new-manager bounce – his first five league games after replacing Marco Silva in January 2018 yielded 10 points including a 4-1 win over Chelsea – and importantly for a manager coming in at this stage of the season with no opportunity to tinker with the squad, is pretty flexible tactically.
His Watford teams deployed back threes, back fours and back fives and assorted midfield twos and threes. His 18 months in England is the most relevant experience but it’s also just a small part of a well-travelled 15 years in coaching.
It’s undeniably a bit of a reach to call this great news. It’s undeniably all a bit meh. Leeds are not aiming particularly high here, but that’s a consequence of previous mistakes both ancient and recent. This appointment at least has a reasonable chance of not compounding them.