Premier League strugglers turn to Spanish saviours in their battle for safety

Javi Gracia at Leeds joins Unai Emery, Julen Lopetegui and Ruben Selles in answering call to steer clubs away from drop zone

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When Javi Gracia, the new caretaker manager of Leeds United makes his way to the dugout beneath the smart Riverside Stand at Fulham on Tuesday, he’ll give a nod of recognition to his counterpart, Marco Silva.

“You again?” they can smile. Five years ago, Gracia replaced Silva as manager of Watford, a club whose high turnover of coaches makes all of them feel a little like caretakers.

Both have left English football for a period since they passed through that revolving door. The Spaniard Gracia wondered whether he would be invited back.

“When I finished at Watford I didn’t know if I’d have another chance in the Premier League,” said Gracia. “When this [offer] appeared I didn’t have any doubts”.

He was not the first choice to replace Jesse Marsch, but had one strong recommendation: knowing the landscape. Gracia lasted more than 18 months at Watford, the longest reign there for almost a decade of chopping and changing, and he took them to the final of the FA Cup, the competition in which Leeds meet Fulham for a place in the sixth round.

But an even stronger endorsement of a manager than his Premier League background, at least at clubs fearful of dropping out of England’s top division, seems to be a Spanish passport.

Since October, six in the top flight have changed managers; four turned to Spain for the replacement.

The top of the table provides its own references for the country’s fine coaching culture, with the Premier League most likely to be won by Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal or, yet again, by the pioneering Pep Guardiola at Manchester City.

Spanish manager Unai Emery on the touchline during Aston Villa's Premier League win at Everton at Goodison Park on February 25, 2023. PA

More relevant in the bottom half are the records since taking over at Aston Villa of Unai Emery and at Wolverhampton Wanderers of Julen Lopetegui.

Villa sacked Steven Gerrard after a run of just two wins in 12 league games, with the club outside the relegation zone only on goals scored; Emery, even at the end of a rocky February that featured losses against Arsenal and City, has six victories from 11 games so far and has guided Villa to 11th.

Wolves said goodbye to Bruno Lage after eight games of the season with the club in the bottom three, on six points.

Lopetegui’s nine-game Premier League tenure has so far yielded 14 points and a rise to 15th. He takes Wolves to Anfield on Wednesday with a 3-0 home triumph over Liverpool earlier this month fresh in the memory.

Leeds, one spot above the drop zone, require some of the same cures from Gracia, who is on what they call a "flexible contract".

They had, repeatedly, tried to headhunt another Spaniard, Andoni Iraola, away from Rayo Vallecano, the low-budget Madrid club he has pushed into La Liga’s European qualifying positions.

They may try again in the summer. If Iraola, 40, has a future in the Premier League – and he would like to work in England one day – he would find himself among friends. He and Arteta started their youth playing careers at the same junior club in San Sebastian.

Julen Lopetegui has guided Wolves out of the bottom three and up to 14th since taking over as manager. Reuters

Emery and Lopetegui come from towns only a few miles away. Gracia, a former teammate of Emery’s at Real Sociedad, is also a native of the greater Basque region, a small territory of Spain with a rich concentration of exportable coaching talent.

Local newspapers celebrated Gracia’s joining Leeds last week by dubbing England’s top tier "The EuskoPrem," playing on "Euskadi", the Basque name of the region.

Besides Arteta, Emery, Lopetegui and Gracia, Aitor Karanka, the manager who guided Middlesbrough into the Premier League in 2016, is also from those parts.

Gracia picked up his first three Leeds points at the weekend, the opening match of his second Premier League adventure a 1-0 victory over Southampton. There were reunions in the technical area at Elland Road.

Gracia, the caretaker, greeted Ruben Selles, freshly elevated from Southampton stand-in coach to manager until at least the end of the season, with a friendly “You again?”. They have a shared past. When Gracia was coaching Valencia’s first team in 2020, Selles was working with the club’s youth squads.

Selles’s task, as the third Southampton manager of 2022-23, is the toughest facing any of the Spanish firefighters.

Buoyed by a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in his first game in sole charge, Selles, 39, came back from Leeds feeling the same pull of gravity his predecessor Nathan Jones had.

The FA Cup may have shown Southampton some kindness – they host Grimsby Town, the lowest-ranked team left in the competition tomorrow – but they remain bottom of the Premier League.

Updated: February 28, 2023, 10:47 AM