He was a candidate for the Sevilla job last summer and again last December, but Watford fans can be glad that Javi Gracia will be taking on Manchester United in the Premier League with Watford, rather than in the Champions League with Los Nervionenses.
At just 47 years of age and having been out of work since last summer, Gracia is full of enthusiasm and energy, but he is also even more experienced than his age would suggest. Having hung up his boots at the age of 34, Gracia has already been coaching for well over a decade, starting out in the highly respected Villarreal academy and learning some of the tricks of the trade from Manuel Pellegrini, who was coaching the senior side at the time.
From there, Gracia embarked on his first senior coaching role, leading third-tier Pontevedra to the promotion play-offs two years in a row and then finally winning promotion to the second tier with Cádiz. A move back to Villarreal followed, this time taking full charge of the B team and helping them to avoid relegation from the second division – a very impressive feat given that they were only one of two youth teams playing with the second-tier big boys that year, with Barcelona B being the other.
Having earned so much experience working with the Villarreal academy, it makes sense that Gracia is a coach who completely trusts young players to get the job done. “Younger players still have it all to do, but maybe more experienced players lack that,” he once posited in an interview with The Guardian.
This attitude would come in very handy when he was handed his highest profile job to date in 2014, taking over at Málaga after following up his time with Villarreal B with stints in Greece, at Almería – who he also got promoted, this time to LaLiga – and at Osasuna. Although the Andalusian club had gotten used to Champions League nights and seeing their name towards the top of the LaLiga table, when Gracia arrived the money tap had been turned off and the star players had been shipped out. There wasn’t much left to work with, but he still found a way to guide Los Boquerones to a ninth-placed finish, just five points off Europa League qualification.
But then the club owners made Gracia’s task even more difficult, as he lost eight players from his squad and had seven new ones come in, with only the €500,000 Charles Dias even costing a transfer fee. Four of Málaga’s five top scorers were among those who left, but Gracia knew he could extract talent from the academy. “I’ll put my faith in the youngsters we have here,” he promised.
And he, and they, delivered. During his time at La Rosaleda, Gracia handed top-flight debuts to six Under-21s, and he was able to achieve similar results with these kids, finishing eighth in the 2015/16 LaLiga season – even if it should be noted that Málaga actually gained two points fewer than they had done the year before, when they came ninth.
For those who know Gracia, it didn’t come as a surprise that he was able to do so well. He works 12-hour days, meticulously looking for solutions, which he often uncovers. Whenever he does spot a weakness in an opponent’s game, he will not hesitate to alter his own side’s tactical plan to exploit it. Gracia is definitely not the kind of stubborn coach who sets his side up in the same formation every week, convinced his way is the only way. His Málaga side had “a perfect knowledge of their opponents”, the Andalusian city’s Diario Sur newspaper said when he was coach.
Gracia is also the kind of coach who excels against the crème de la crème. In 2015/16, his boys conceded just five times in their six league clashes with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid. The year before that, they were the only team in the world to have taken on Champions League winners Barcelona at least once and to have avoided defeat.
Rubin Kazan saw talent and made the Spaniard and offer which, in his own words, “he couldn’t refuse”. The Russian side had finished 10th the year before Gracia’s arrival and he took them up to ninth, but this wasn’t viewed as enough of an improvement and he departed by mutual consent after one year. Even though the club was going through turbulent times off the field, this league finish was considered a disappointing one.
Gracia also struggled in Russia due to the language barrier, needing five different translators to assist him in tactical meetings, which are very important to the 47-year-old. That shouldn’t be a problem at Vicarage Road, though, as the Spaniard speaks good English and has been studying the language and the league, with a Premier League move clearly something that has been on his mind for some time.
He has finally made it to England and he arrives with a very impressive and colourful CV. Having coached in three different countries already, having troubled the Goliaths of Barcelona and Real Madrid and having worked in youth development, Gracia is far more experienced than he looks. Watford have got themselves a proper good coach.