Premier League

Who Is New Watford Coach Javi Gracia?

 • by Tom Bodell
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There is little use in attempting to second-guess the identity of an incoming Watford head coach.

Gino Pozzo, the Hornets’ owner, has a penchant for plucking relatively obscure names out of the hat. Yet, when it came to finding the man to replace Walter Mazzarri last season, he bucked the trend by plumping for the in-demand Marco Silva.

That has not worked out. The Portuguese, who was so sought after in October that Everton reportedly offered upwards of £10million to prise him away from Vicarage Road, has been unceremoniously dumped seven months into a two-year contract. Not even the charmless Mazzarri or Quique Sánchez Flores suffered that ignominy, instead leaving at the season’s end.

In his place Watford have stuck to the tried and tested method, settling on former Málaga and Rubin Kazan head coach Javi Gracia. A resounding chorus of ‘who?’ has followed the Spaniard’s appointment among Hornets fans on social media.

The 47-year-old, who has been out of work since leaving Rubin last June, has enjoyed a varied coaching career and, in joining the Hornets, makes England the fourth country he has coached in during his relatively brief career.

But who is he? Football Whispers attempt to shed some light on the new Watford head coach.

Javi Gracia the player

A defensive midfielder in his playing days, Gracia started out with Unión Deportiva Cultural Chantrea, a local side in his hometown of Pamplona. More commonly known as Chantrea, the Basque club are responsible for producing several members of the Athletic Club de Bilbao side which reached Europa League final in 2012 – most notably Iker Muniain and Mikel San José.

Gracia moved to Athletic and, in 1989, turned professional. But in three years at the club with a famously Basque-only policy he failed to break into the first team and was restricted to outings for Bilbao Athletic, the second string.

In 1992 Gracia left in search of senior football, joining the now-defunct UE Lleida. Helping himself to 12 goals from midfield, Gracia and Lleida won promotion to La Liga more than 40 years after they last played in Spain’s top flight.

Having impressed with Lleida, Gracia was snapped up by the more established Real Valladolid in the summer of 1993 and spent the next six years in La Liga, including a four-year stint at Real Sociedad.

Gracia’s next move pointed to his thirst for a challenge, signing for Villarreal of the Segunda División. The Yellow Submarine’s debut season in La Liga has just ended in relegation but with Gracia in midfield they bounced back immediately and have spent all bar one season in the top tier since.

But as Villarreal established themselves, Gracia was gradually frozen out, joining Córdoba in January 2003. He played for another 18 months before calling time on a lengthy – if unspectacular – career which comprised more than 400 games in 15 years.

The next chapter was ready to begin.

Javi Gracia the coach

Gracia began life in the dugout back at former club Villarreal where he served as a youth coach between 2004 and 2005. But in 2007 he got his break, joining Pontevedra in the Segunda División B, the third tier. Despite finishing first and second in two season, Gracia and co. were denied promotion in the end-of-season playoffs.

However, the following season Gracia cracked it, albeit with a new club: Cadiz’s B team. Having finished top of the pile, the Swordfishes clinched promotion to the Segunda División through the playoffs. But Gracia was fired the following season and the Andalusian outfit were relegated at the first attempt.

Gracia did not have to wait long to return to coaching, though, joining Villarreal for the third time to lead their second string. Having kept the Yellow Submarine afloat, he took his first steps abroad by signing for Greek outfit Olympiakos Volou.

That proved a short-lived experience and, after winning three and drawing just one of his four games, Gracia was on the move again, this time joining Kerkyra. Again it was brief and he left in March 2012 having overseen just 21 games.

After his sojourn in Greece, Gracia returned to more familiar surroundings when he was appointed coach of Almería, then in the second tier. He won the second promotion of his coaching career but was dismissed before he could lead los Rojiblancos in La Liga, leaving with a 56 per cent win record.

Having impressed back in his homeland, Gracia was swiftly signed up to be Osasuna coach in September 2013, replacing José Luis Mendilibar. Despite his best efforts, Gracia could not keep his hometown club up and they were relegated having finished a point behind old club Almería.

But Gracia had done enough to catch the eye of laga and he was installed as the replacement for outgoing coach Bernd Schuster who had overseen an 11th-place finish. By now, controversial owner Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani had already begun to turn the money tap off. Isco, Martín Demichelis, Joaquín and Jérémy Toulalan were among the star names who had been sold off.

Despite that Gracia finished ninth and recorded the most famous win in his managerial career to date, beating Barcelona 1-0 at the Camp Nou in February 2015 courtesy of an early goal from ex-Southampton forward Juanmi.

During his two-year stay at la Rosaleda, Gracia enjoyed the upper hand against the big two, going unbeaten against Real Madrid during the 2015/16 campaign as they missed out on the title while.

With his reputation on the up, Gracia took the reigns at Russian outfit Rubin Kazan for the 2016/17 campaign. He improved on the tenth-place finish of the previous season but left after a year at the helm with ninth and a domestic cup semi-final not enough to keep him in situ.

What to expect from Javi Gracia

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In his own words, Gracia is a coach who likes to develop his existing players, rather than making wholesale changes. That was the order of the day at Málaga and Juanmi, who later moved to the Premier League, was just one of the many beneficiaries of his coaching.

“My vision has to be young players that we can develop to build a better team,” he said while at Malaga. “My objective is not to develop players to sell, it’s to develop players to have a better team. But if with time, teams come and pay for them, they’ll go. That’s not my objective, [but] there are others who tell you that.”

Although his preference is to set up in a 4-4-2 system, Gracia is comfortable switching to 4-3-3. His time at Málaga proved he could get more from a team than the sum of its parts and conceded just 35 times during the 2015/16 campaign – only Real, Barça and Atlético Madrid had meaner defences.

Discussing that famous win at the Camp Nou with Sky Sports, Gracia gave a fascinating insight into the tactics which saw Barça have just three efforts on target that afternoon.

“We did different things in different moments,” he said. “In certain moments, it is important to drop to a low block but this has to be done all together as a team. It is important to remember not to stay too deep. In other moments it is important to press, but the really important thing is to press as an entire team.

“The spaces in the central zone have to be closed down because that is the area where Barcelona can really hurt you. So we looked to close down that space and, of course, we tried our very best to press as much as possible when Lionel Messi got the ball. We prepared very well and got good results by doing it that way.”

A fluent English speaker with three children, Gracia had stated his preference to return to his homeland after leaving the chaos of Kazan behind him.

“I would prefer for the next opportunity to come here in Spain,” he said last year. “But I do not rule out going abroad again because I think there are many places where I can enjoy my job.”

Time will tell whether Watford is one such place.

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