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Phil Hay praises “savvy” Gracia tactical switch against Southampton

Leeds United supporters were reminded what winning felt like again after beating fellow Premier League strugglers Southampton at Elland Road over the weekend.

The occasion provided the perfect start to new manager Javi Gracia’s reign as he guided his side to a narrow 1-0 win – their first in the league since 5th November.

In a tense contest which the Whites mostly dominated, the deadlock was broken in the game’s 77th minute by a goal from an unlikely source: left-back Junior Firpo.

The 26-year-old, who has struggled at the West Yorkshire club since his arrival from Barcelona in the summer of 2021, has been earning plaudits for not just his contribution on Saturday – but his all-round performances as of late.

Indeed, he has arguably been Leeds’ most impressive player in their last three games, leading many to wonder whether the previously maligned Dominican-born Spaniard is set to experience something of a footballing renaissance.

Whilst Firpo’s own desire and ability has to be commended, The Athletic’s Phil Hay has been quick to praise new manager Gracia’s contribution to unlocking the ex-Barcelona man’s potential.

Speaking on The Phil Hay Show in the wake of the Southampton game [27 February], Hay claimed that Gracia’s willingness to play with greater width was key in increasing Firpo’s involvement in proceedings:

“He [Gracia] did play with width on Saturday. It was very obvious against Southampton that both Gnonto and Harrison had been told when Leeds were in possession to hug the touchlines and get out wide and to make the most of those areas.

“And I think because of the setup it meant that Firpo was able to overlap and underlap for a lot of the game.

“He’d been trying all game to do that [get forward] and I think that tactically it was quite savvy. It was just generally a pretty pragmatic day when pragmatism was called for.”

A welcome change

One of the leading criticisms of previous Leeds manager Jesse Marsch’s footballing style was its lack of width, a decision which appeared to seriously stifle his side’s attacking threat whilst making them susceptible to quick switches across the pitch when defending.

Seeing the offensive quality which the Whites have in players such as Wilfried Gnonto, Crysencio Summerville, and Luis Sinisterra – among others – so frequently wasted in a narrow system was a constant source of frustration for the Elland Road faithful.

Now, it seems things are set to change with Gracia not being afraid of making the most of the whole pitch rather than confining play to the centre of it.

His decision to do so paid dividends on Saturday, with Leeds’ crucial winner coming from an attack down the left side – as well as the licence Firpo was given to roam forward.

It is refreshing to see some more expansive play from Leeds – with width being something they desperately lacked during Marsch’s tenure.

Fans will no doubt be hoping that Gracia’s “pragmatism” generates more goals for their side – something which would go a long way towards helping them escape the Premier League drop this season.

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