Leeds United’s manager lesson learned as approach pays off - Graham Smyth's Verdict on Forest win

Leeds United’s win over Nottingham Forest, a far cry from their last meeting, made it 10 points from 18 since Javi Gracia was appointed as manager at Elland Road.
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Gracia was asked on Monday what lessons he could learn from Leeds United's February defeat at Nottingham Forest, one that ultimately provided him with a job opening.

Since his arrival the Spaniard has been nothing but respectful in regards to his predecessor, even going so far as to praise the work done by previous coaching staff with this Whites squad, so he was never going to stick the boot in. Instead, his football did the talking for him in a 2-1 Elland Road victory over the Reds.

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A patient approach to possession and his use of width, glorious width, were just about the antithesis of what had come at the City Ground. That previous clash between the sides proved a failure too far for Jesse Marsch. Steve Cooper's half-time changes took the game away from Leeds, whose over-reliance on Willy Gnonto and a lack of ideas in possession left Marsch cutting a powerless figure on the touchline, his body language growing increasingly dejected as it wore on. That in turn left onlookers with the feeling that he had no answer. A day later he was sacked.

PATIENT MAN - Javi Gracia was patient but not passive or powerless as his Leeds United plan worked against Nottingham Forest at Elland Road. Pic: GettyPATIENT MAN - Javi Gracia was patient but not passive or powerless as his Leeds United plan worked against Nottingham Forest at Elland Road. Pic: Getty
PATIENT MAN - Javi Gracia was patient but not passive or powerless as his Leeds United plan worked against Nottingham Forest at Elland Road. Pic: Getty

Luke Ayling's matchday programme interview touched on that City Ground defeat, just enough to confirm suspicions.

"It was really hard for us to take because in the first half we played well and made a lot of chances, but didn't take them," he said.

"And then they scored from nothing, really. In the second half we came out and in truth we were awful. We had no answers for how they changed the game so we will look to put that right this time."

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When chances came against Forest, Leeds did not make the same mistake again and the one looking on powerless was Cooper.

Gracia restored Patrick Bamford and Weston McKennie to the starting XI, Crysencio Summerville and Rasmus Kristensen dropping out. Summerville's absence was eyebrow-raising in itself after such a good showing at Arsenal but Bamford's hold-up play proved pivotal. McKennie came into his own when the game became all about transition later on.

The American international was good in the first half too though, when Leeds dominated the early possession. But for all the time on the ball they enjoyed, the hosts were not the most dangerous looking side in the initial minutes.

Forest were obviously happy to sit in and then break, which they did to win a pair of corners, the second of which was knocked against the woodwork by Emmanuel Dennis. And when Luke Ayling, who struggled so badly at Arsenal and might have felt fortunate to keep his place, headed the ball straight against a visitor in his own half, Forest capitalised ruthlessly. The ball was played into the space behind Ayling, Dennis pulled it back to the edge of the area and Orel Mangala effortlessly avoided Sinisterra's challenge to stroke home into the bottom corner.

Here we go again?

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Leeds could so easily have panicked and rushed to find a leveller, knowing that the longer Forest held a lead the more stubborn their resistance would grow and the more time they would seek to eat up. But patience was their virtue and an equaliser their reward.

The ball was worked left and then kept, held onto instead of being forced into the area. When it was worked right the chance came, Jack Harrison skipping inside two men, Weston McKennie helping it on and Marc Roca driving in a shot that Keylor Navas could only parry out to Harrison, who buried it. Patient, yes, but not passive.

And buoyed by tangible evidence that Gracia's plan to keep the ball and target the flanks would work, Leeds kept at it. Wide went the ball again, Harrison and Sinisterra pinning Forest in and toying with them before the Colombian took his turn at finding the net. Again, patience was key. Sinisterra picked up possession outside the area and cut inside as Harrison had, feinting to go to the byline but staying true to his course and then arrowed a shot into the far corner of the net.

Sinisterra was up and dancing, Gracia was airborne and Elland Road had lift off.

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Cooper made his changes 10 minutes into the second half this time with a double swap. Jonjo Shelvey and Taiwo Awoniyi came on and almost combined to immediate effect, the former's long ball putting the latter in on goal until Junior Firpo arrived with a vital challenge. The left-back recently spoke of how having a wide option ahead of him has helped make life easier and his form has backed up the theory.

Gracia pumped the air at that tackle but even if his side were still creating danger through the wingers, the game had become far more chaotic than he would have liked. His appeals for calm grew more demonstrative at each free-kick or possession Leeds earned. He called Illan Meslier over for a chat, revealing after the game that the conversation centred around Shelvey’s ability to play long and the necessity to get the defensive distances spot on. Every break in play was a chance to issue further orders. Gracia may be patient, but he was not powerless.

There were chances to kill Forest off once and for all - Sinisterra curled one wide and Bamford, left alone by a pair of defenders getting in a muddle, missed the target. But with the ball so often in the Forest half of the pitch and substitutes Rodrigo and Summerville helping to keep the visitors honest by threatening to spring clear on the break, Leeds stayed in control of the scoreline and the game, moving up to 13th in the table.

Gracia himself is starting to take on the feel of a lesson learned for Leeds. He wasn’t the man their thoughts turned to instinctively when Marsch got the sack, he wasn’t in that initial shortlist. Those were arguably bigger names, at the time, more exciting even - although not as experienced as Gracia. Perhaps a manager need not represent a grand project, though, but simply be tactically astute, with a calm personality appropriate for the sheer tension of the challenge. Maybe all he needs to be is a good manager. Maybe all an appointment needs is to be obvious and sensible. It's possible that instead of having a philosophy set in stone, changing the tactics and the team to best suit the occasion is how you box clever in the relegation dog fight. It's possible that Gracia is exactly what Leeds need.