Javi Gracia is five games into his reign at Leeds United and his impact is already there to see. The Spanish head coach hasn’t had it all his own way in that time, but the seven points Leeds have earned have been enough to push them out of the relegation zone and up to 14th in the Premier League table.
There’s a renewed sense of belief around Elland Road and Gracia will be keen to see more progress in the coming weeks with some absolutely pivotal fixtures to come. Here, LeedsLive take a look at some of the changes we’ve noticed from Gracia's first month.
The Whites may have only kept one clean sheet under Gracia’s guidance so far, but they’ve made telling progress at the back over the last few weeks. That’s something Gracia set out to achieve when he joined the club at the end of February as he spoke about balance and the importance of being difficult to break down defensively without taking away from what the club had to offer in attack.
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There’s still work to be done but so far we’ve seen Leeds look compact, disciplined and relatively miserly at the back. Southampton are the only team Leeds have held to a blank, but Chelsea were frustrated for large periods at Stamford Bridge, while Leeds managed the threat of Brighton and Hove Albion well for the most part, too.
Wolves asked plenty of questions last weekend, but they needed a freak goal from range and a fortunate deflection to get on the scoresheet at all. Above all the backline looks settled, with Luke Ayling and Junior Firpo impressing in the full-back roles and Max Wober and Robin Koch building a solid partnership in the middle.
At certain points of the Premier League season before Gracia’s arrival, Leeds looked a little one-dimensional. The pressing, high-energy style of Jesse Marsch was great when it worked and wins over Chelsea and Liverpool will go down as highlights of the campaign.
However, when it didn’t work, Leeds were regularly caught out and they struggled to make the alterations required to plug gaps and keep sides at bay. Gracia has implemented a different style in his first month, but it’s fair to say we’ve seen different instructions and tactics carried out on a game-by-game basis.
Against Brighton, for example, Leeds showed a reluctance to fall into their pressing trap and therefore they could be seen standing back and allowing the Seagulls’ backline to pass the ball between themselves. At Fulham, United went with three in the middle in an attempt to overload the midfield, and at Wolves they made the necessary formation switch to stifle the wide threat in the second half.
Gracia’s side haven’t always thrilled but there’s a clear emphasis on results over performance and that’s all that matters with 11 games to go.
Bringing the best out of individuals
It’s only been a few weeks but it’s clear that key men have shown an uptick in performance levels under Gracia and one of those is Firpo. The left-back has struggled to impress during the first 18 months of his Leeds career, picking up plenty of criticism along the way.
But, he’s found consistency and form over the last few weeks to nail down his spot in the line-up. He’s been a relatively safe pair of hands defensively and he has been given a license to get forward when the opportunity presents itself to do so.
Wober, Koch and Ayling are among those to catch the eye in recent weeks, too. But, perhaps one of the most interesting turnarounds has been in Jack Harrison, who has started every Premier League game under Gracia so far.
Harrison’s form has been a big cause of frustration for supporters this season and his general level of performance under Gracia has still underwhelmed on occasion. However, his output in the league since the Spaniard’s arrival has been remarkable, bagging two goals and two assists to help Leeds get the results they so desperately need at this point.
That’s a fine return and if he can build on that it seems he could be one of Gracia’s main men in the run-in.
Use of width
The lack of width within Marsch’s system became a stick to beat the American with as his tenure at Elland Road came to end and under Gracia we have seen Leeds use the space that exists on the extremities on the pitch a little better. The Whites have managed to build attacks from wide areas to relatively good effect, stretching play while full-backs have got forward in support, as they did on Saturday with both Luke Ayling and Rasmus Kristensen getting on the scoresheet.
Despite scoring six goals in the last two, though, Gracia’s Leeds still have improvements to make in attack and it’s fair to say his use of Wilfried Gnonto has been curious, as well. The Italy international has been in and out of the side under the Spaniard, despite proving to be the club’s chief threat in the months prior to his appointment.
He has picked up assists in the club’s last two games but he may well feel as though he has a point to prove when he returns to Thorp Arch from international duty next week.
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