Former Malaga boss Javi Gracia on Premier League possibilities and how he stopped Barcelona…
Nine games into the season and Malaga are struggling badly. Eight defeats and a draw leave them at the foot of La Liga, five points from safety and in danger of dropping down to the second tier for the first time in a decade. The pressure is building on their coach Michel and the supporters at La Rosaleda want change. Many of them want Javi Gracia.
Michel’s popular predecessor is back in the city, his spell in Russia with Rubin Kazan having come to an end. Malaga remains home to his family, including his three sons, and while Gracia is anxious not to put pressure on the club’s current coach, his presence has not gone unnoticed. “They are having problems,” Gracia tells Sky Sports.
Highlights of Barcelona's recent 2-0 victory over Malaga in La Liga
“It is not easy for them. It is true that in some matches they deserved more points than they got but they are now in a very difficult situation. I do not know if the coach’s job is in danger but at this moment all I can say is that I wish them the best, I support them and I want them to pick up some points in the next game against Celta Vigo.”
Malaga might not be the only opening. Gracia was in the frame for the Sevilla job in the summer and began his playing career with Athletic, continuing to divide his time between Malaga and the north. Both those clubs have also made poor starts under new coaches and Gracia has become the go-to name that is thrown around after the latest defeat.
Clearly, the memories of his time at Malaga remain fresh. It was not so long ago that the club registered back-to-back top 10 finishes under his watch. Despite diminished resources, Gracia earned a reputation for being able to cause problems for the very best. In his final season, Malaga were unbeaten home and away against Real Madrid – costing them the title.
The only other team unbeaten against Madrid in La Liga that 2015/16 season were Atletico, and Malaga beat them too. In fact, they conceded only five goals in six games against the big three that season. The year before, Gracia’s first at the club, Malaga took four points from two games against eventual champions Barcelona, beating them at the Camp Nou.
Barca went on to win the Champions League that season and had scored 26 goals in the six games prior to facing Malaga. They hit 18 in the six after too, winning the lot. But Malaga deserved to win. Spanish newspaper El Pais described them as “pure chloroform” for Barca. For Gracia, it was a reward for his 12 hour days at the training ground.
“It was amazing for us because we needed the points and to win at that moment in Barcelona was something special,” says Gracia. “Afterwards all of the football world was speaking about it and the tactical preparation that went into it. I do enjoy that tactical challenge but we do that for every game whether it is Barcelona or Leganes.”
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So how exactly do you beat Barca? “We did different things in different moments,” he explains. “In certain moments, it is important to drop to a low block but this has to be done all together as a team. It is important to remember not to stay too deep. In other moments it is important to press, but the really important thing is to press as an entire team.
“The spaces in the central zone have to be closed down because that is the area where Barcelona can really hurt you. So we looked to close down that space and, of course, we tried our very best to press as much as possible when Lionel Messi got the ball. We prepared very well and got good results by doing it that way.”
Gracia was in-demand when he decided to leave Malaga last year but when he took a four-year contract at Rubin Kazan he was walking into a club with big problems. Rubin had finished tenth prior to his arrival but a ninth-place finish was still seen as a disappointment. Gracia acknowledges that he found it an awkward assignment.
“It was very tough,” he admits. “The culture and the character there is very different. It was so tough for me. Communication was difficult. I had 13 different nationalities and five translators so it was difficult to explain my plans on a daily basis. I was struggling to explain everything that I wanted from them. The weather is a very big problem too.”
Given that his earlier experience in Greece included a month at Olympiakos Volou where “there were problems with the president and the team disappeared”, Gracia could be forgiven for ruling out another foray abroad. But he speaks good English and watches every match in the Premier League, particularly enjoying Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
“If an opportunity came up again in Russia then I would have to say no but if it was somewhere else then that would be good,” he says. “I think maybe after my last experience in Russia I would prefer for the next opportunity to come here in Spain, but I do not rule out going abroad again because I think there are many places where I can enjoy my job.”
Malaga fans may be hoping Gracia does not need to look so far away for his next chance.