The appeal and stature of a manager can often be drawn on the basis of the crowd they attract to their unveiling at any given club. The press room at the Santiago Bernabeu, for instance, was packed from wall to wall when Zinedine Zidane was announced as Real Madrid’s new coach, albeit on an interim basis at the time, back in January 2016. Julen Lopetegui, however, wasn’t such a ticket shifter.
Of course, the announcement of Lopetegui as Real Madrid’s new manager this summer was made in unique circumstances. The Spanish press were called the Santiago Bernabeu, as is customary, for a press conference in which club president Florentino Perez would unveil his new man, but in this case the Spanish press were in Russia, with Spain set to start their World Cup campaign the very next day. Only a handful managed to make it.
This served to illustrative the underwhelming nature of Lopetegui’s appointment. Sure, the story was an extraordinary one, leaving the Spain camp on the eve of the World Cup to take up the Real Madrid job, but of all the names that had been linked with the post, Lopetegui’s was one of the least inspiring.
Lopetegui, as a person and a character, is at odds with the nature of Real Madrid as a club. This is an organisation that revels in its reputation as European football’s Harlem Globetrotters. While some mights club have bristled at the ‘Galacticos’ tag that was placed on them in the early 2000s as they hoovered up star name after star name, Real Madrid embraced it. Lopetegui, for all that he has shown himself to be a decent coach, is no ‘Galactico.’
He needed to hit the ground running to stand any chance of proving himself, and that hasn’t quite happened yet. The international break came with Real Madrid in the midst of a crisis, going four games without a win, not even a goal. It’s only through the falterings of others that Real remain in contention near the top of La Liga at this stage.
There have already been suggestions that Lopetegui could lose his job, with the likes of Antonio Conte and youth team coach Santiago Solari mentioned as potential replacements. The vortex that engulfs so many Real Madrid mangers has started to spin and very few manage survive when speculation begins to swirl in this way.
But even if Lopetegui manages to turn things around and make a success of this season, he might never be able to outrun his own reputation, or the lack thereof. He could become the managerial Keylor Navas, never quite embraced despite proving himself at the top of the game time and time again.
Indeed, Navas will go down as one of the most successful goalkeepers in Real Madrid history, excelling as the club won three successive Champions League, as well as league championships and cups, over the past few years. But the Costa Rican, signed for just €10 million from Levante, never fitted the ‘Galactico’ criteria and was eventually, after years and years of speculation, replaced by Thibaut Courtois this summer.
Neither Jurgen Klopp nor Mauricio Pochettino, two managers reportedly on the wish list of Perez, might not be available right now, but what would it mean for Lopetegui were that to change? Would he be binned, regardless of any success he’d achieved, in much the same way Navas was this summer?
All Lopetegui can hope to do is, as best he can, emulate Zidane. While he had the stature that Lopetegui does not, he was never intended as a permanent Real Madrid manager, only a stopgap. It was only through sustained success that he made himself immovable. However, as things currently stand, it seems more likely Lopetegui will emulate Zidane’s predecessor instead – Rafa Benitez, a man who seemed up against it at the Santiago Bernabeu from the very start and lasted just a few months in the job.
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