Javi Gracia at Rubin Kazan – What Went Wrong?

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Last week, Rubin Kazan sacked Spanish head coach Javi Gracia, before replacing him with their legendary manager from 2001-2013, Kurban Berdyev, who recently enjoyed two-and-a-half hugely successful seasons at FC Rostov.

Gracia’s appointment last summer as Rubin’s first foreign coach generated a lot of excitement. His reputation of being a bright young coach preceded him, and he had pulled off a series of impressive results with former side Malaga. He gained positive marks when he arrived three weeks early in Kazan, to begin adapting to his new surroundings and staff, and try to start learning Russian.

After announcing Gracia as their new manager, Rubin announced a string of big name signings, all influenced or approved by Gracia. Alex Song, formerly of Arsenal and Barcelona drew the biggest surprise, signing as a free transfer, but Rubin shelled out over €40m on Maxime Lestienne (€10m), Jonathas (€8m), Carlos Zambrano (€5m), Moritz Bauer (€4m), Ruben Rochina (€10m) and Samu Garcia (€5m), as well as adding young Russians Rifat Zhemaletdinov and Georgiy Makhatadze from Lokomotiv Moscow.

READ MORE: Evaluating the performances of Rubin’s €40m summer signings

Rifat Zhemaletdinov during a game against Anzhi. Photo: Dzhalil Gubaydullin

Rifat Zhemaletdinov during a game against Anzhi. Photo: Dzhalil Gubaydullin

Swiss-Austrian full back Bauer was the first to be announced, not a big name signing coming from Grasshoppers in Switzerland, but Gracia admitted that he had been following him in Spain, and was looking to sign him had he remained with Malaga, so it was clear indeed that the manager was having his say in the proceedings, and the board was not forcing these players upon him.

Rubin pulled off another coup, when they convinced Yann M’Vila to remain at the club and sign a new contract, instead of completing a transfer to Sunderland, after the Premier League side baulked at the €7m which Rubin were requesting.

This transfer window left Rubin fans brimming with confidence, and neutrals impressed. Some tipped them for a return to European football, even challenging for the title. Others were sceptical, wondering if the new signings would adapt to the league, and whether Gracia would be able to hack a new league.

These sceptics would prove to be correct. After five rounds, Rubin had just three points, and were yet to win despite playing four of the final bottom seven, as well as eventual champions Spartak. Rubin’s fortunes did however change for a period in the first half of the season, which coincided with Jonathas finding his form. The Brazilian hit a hot streak, scoring in 6 consecutive matches, and a spell of eight goals in ten matches between September and the winter break, which put Rubin in with a realistic chance of European football, sitting just five points of fourth place, and progressing to the quarter finals of the Russian Cup.

However, after the three month winter break, things again started to turn sour. In the opening games after the break, Rubin snuck in two undeserved 1-0 victories, in the cup against FNL side Sibir to progress to the semi-finals, and scraping past Anzhi away thanks to a late goal from Maxim Kanunnikov. After that, Rubin went on a seven game streak without winning, including an embarrassing 2-2 draw against Tom Tomsk.

Eventually, after plenty of stick in the press, and rumours of his departure, Gracia gave in, swapping from his preferred 4-4-2, to a 3-5-2. This did bring a turn in fortunes, somewhat, dragging them up the table to 9th place, labouring home with a couple of wins, but overall, not a saving grace, and it soon became clear that he would depart the club. In early June, that news became official, and his announcement was revealed as Kurban Berdyev, Rubin’s legendary former manager from 2002-2013, who had achieved great success with FC Rostov.

Kurban Berdyev and Mintimer Shaymiev, the president of Tatarstan, after the club last won the championship. Photo:  Maksim Bogodvid / Максим Богодвид

Kurban Berdyev and Mintimer Shaymiev, the president of Tatarstan, after the club last won the championship. Photo: Maksim Bogodvid / Максим Богодвид

So what really went wrong for Javi Gracia? Ultimately, Rubin’s statement in the transfer market let to very high expectations, and the new signings and coach did not adapt quick enough to realise these expectations. Tactically, Gracia was quite stuborn, unwilling to adapt his formation which clearly struggled against the number of 5 defender formations he came up against. For most of the season, Rubin were tactically uninspiring, even when on good form, they did not create much, with goals coming from long balls or high balls into the box. Rubin tended to look most threatening on the counter, which was one of Gracia’s main traits as a coach, but the lack of pace in the team did not help.

Rubin’s players have been full of praise for Gracia all season, and after his sacking. They regard him as a very clever individual, with a keen eye for detail in training and a good tactician, but ultimately, they have said that his lack of familiarity with the league was the catalyst for his failure. Rubin goalkeeper Sergey Ryzhikov had plenty of nice things to say about him when it was announced he had been sacked.

“In my opinion, Javi is a good manager. At the very least, he’s not the worst of my career. He just was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s a bit unlucky. We cannot find a scape goat for this season, the blame is equal, from the management and the players. First of all, Rubin as a squad were not a collective, there was no unity in the team or the club. The new guys didn’t adapt well to Russia, and the old guys in the squad didn’t adapt to the new guys.”

Ryzhikov explained that unlike the main squad, the goalkeepers worked mainly just with their new Spanish goalkeeping coach, Inigo Arteaga. Initially, they worked with an interpreter, but decided that actually, it was better to forgo that, and communicate using broken English and gestures, so that they would grow a closer relationship. Arteaga, like the rest of Gracia’s coaching staff, have also left Rubin.

“What I really liked about Gracia is his training process. For all my career at Rubin, there have been no foreign coaches, so I was interested to see how Europeans handle things, I certainly took notes for myself. But then last season happened, people see the results, and all thoughts are negative. Really, the European mentality is not suitable for the Russian football. With Javi, he didn’t have anyone close to him who could explain what Russia was about. Actually, there is one – Dmitry Kuznetsov [first team coach] but perhaps he did not listen to him.

Gracia simply put, could not understand the Russian soul. It seems to me, that not only Javi, but also the other new foreigners, found it hard to adapt to our country.”

Like PSG head coach Unai Emery, who was famously sacked at Spartak Moscow, before him, Javi Gracia is a very good manager and still very young in managerial terms, and is likely to have a shining career in Europe, probably back in Spain, but the step to Russia, perhaps the hardest league in Europe to manage in as an outsider, was just too much for him.

Author: David Sansun

Arsenal and Rubin Kazan fan. Possibly too optimistic for Russian football which means I’m left disappointed a lot.

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