Tactics writer Sam Tighe previews Southampton’s trip to Elland Road, where Leeds will be under new management for the first time…
In appointing Javi Gracia as manager this week, have Leeds United thrown a spanner in the works of Southampton’s preparations?
Most likely, yes. The impact and sheer unknown quantity of a new man at the helm cannot be underestimated – just ask Graham Potter if you need confirmation!
Last weekend’s results may well have spooked Leeds into this move; wins for Saints and AFC Bournemouth – combined with the Whites’ own loss to Everton – changed the picture at the bottom of the table quite drastically.
In steps Javi Gracia, whose contact time with the team has been limited due to work permit regulations, but is expected to be in the dugout at Elland Road this weekend. The players will no doubt be raring to go out and impress him.
What constitutes Gracia’s tactical style?
The Spaniard’s coaching career has been a winding one – not dissimilar to Rubén Sellés’s, actually – as he’s taken jobs in Spain, Greece, Russia, Qatar and now England for a second time. He was last in the Premier League with Watford between 2018 and 2019, steering them clear of relegation twice in 18 months and reaching an FA Cup final too.
His Hornets team back then was built on a solid central spine, utilising the likes of Étienne Capoue and Abdoulaye Doucouré very well, and often ensuring his midfield stayed narrow to create a box (2-2) shape. The full-backs pushed forward to provide width and there was a notable preference for crosses from deep.
A lot depends on how much time he can spend shaping the team in his image on such short notice, but we might well see a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 shape on Saturday, focused on winning the midfield battle and proving difficult to beat.
Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Marc Roca’s qualities suit what Gracia typically looks for in midfield, while Wilfried Gnonto’s darting runs will be a constant danger.
How can Saints make it a debut to forget for Gracia?
Building on a superb performance at Stamford Bridge last weekend is key, and Sellés made it clear to his squad in the post-match huddle: “You’ve done nothing yet.” A repeat showing – filled to the brim with the energy, determination and desire on display in west London – is a must.
The midfield zones will be hotly contested; Gracia likes a compact unit, and the players he inherits have been playing Jesse March’s Red Bull-style football for a year. This could get quite fierce, quite fast, so Roméo Lavia’s ability to escape pressure and play a pass could be key.
Kamaldeen Sulemana’s mesmeric dribbling qualities have the potential to break open Leeds’ defence, as does his ability to win fouls in dangerous areas. James Ward-Prowse is just one free-kick away from equalling David Beckham’s record – this weekend could be the weekend!
Predicted XI (4-2-2-2): Meslier; Ayling, Koch, Wöber, Firpo; Adams, Roca; McKennie, Aaronson; Gnonto, Bamford.
-With a new manager in the dugout, this first XI is pretty much anyone’s guess
-Expect a beefed-up midfield. If Roca’s fit to return, McKennie may feature higher up
-Bamford is finally back to fitness and can now lead the Leeds line again