“Yesterday was the saddest day of my life since the death of my mother, but today is the happiest,” Julen Lopetegui said at his presentation as the successor to Zinedine Zidane. The 51-year-old coach had experienced a surreal 24 hours between June 13 and June 14 of this year, as he was hired by Real Madrid, subsequently sacked by Spain and then welcomed to the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. All of this on the eve of the World Cup.
It was one of the most controversial and headline-grabbing coaching appointments of Real Madrid’s history, but it’s now in the past and what matters for the European champions and for their Basque coach is that he is in the Spanish capital and that he’s getting to work.
Few would envy his stacked in-tray, which must be lurking over his desk like a Jenga tower in a breeze. Not only does Lopetegui have to start implementing a new philosophy after the departure of the ridiculously successful Zidane, but he also has to deal with the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, the lack of a replacement, rumours of a Luka Modrić exit, a goalkeeping competition between Keylor Navas and Thibaut Courtois, the development and integration of 18-year-old Vinícius Júnior and the fact that so many of his players have World Cup fatigue.
While pre-season performances were encouraging and while Real Madrid won their LaLiga opener 2-0 against Getafe, Lopetegui lost his first competitive game in the dugout of his new club and he did so against city rivals Atlético and with a trophy at stake. As much as Los Rojiblancos have spent big this summer and taken strides forward, the 4-2 UEFA Super Cup reverse was not the start he wanted. It was not the start he could afford.
Lopetegui will be given time, but not an unlimited amount. Just three years ago Los Blancos were similarly beginning a new era under Rafa Benítez, who was dismissed by Florentino Pérez just six and 18 matches into his first season. Real Madrid were only five points behind league leaders Barcelona at the time, but the hierarchy at the Bernabéu were ruthless.
Given that Lopetegui’s CV isn’t even as impressive as Benítez, he knows that the shape he sees out the corner of his eye is the football manager executioner’s axe and that he could face the same fate as his countryman if things don’t go right quickly. As much as Lopetegui did a commendable job with Spain and took them to the World Cup with a record of 14 wins, six draws and zero losses, his previous appointments didn’t go too well.
In one and a half seasons at Porto he failed to win any trophies, despite the fact that the Portuguese club spent more money in the summer of his arrival than in any other in their history. Before that, he’d been coaching in the Spanish youth set-up and with Real Madrid’s B team, where he achieved relative success without ever setting the world on fire.
His only other experience of being head coach of a Spanish club’s first team was when he managed Rayo Vallecano in the second division in the 2003/04 season, aged just 37 at the time. It did not go well, as he won just two, drew two and lost six of his first 10 matches, leading to his quick dismissal.
Now, 15 years later, he is in charge at a Spanish side again and it remains to be seen if he’ll be suited to the daily grind of club football. By all accounts, the players who represented his Spain teams got on well with him and it was telling that the senior players petitioned (although unsuccessfully) the Spanish FA to allow Lopetegui to stay on as Spain coach for the 2018 World Cup. However, he’ll now have to deal with these superstars day in day out, and the Bernabéu dressing room is known to be a difficult one when cliques develop.
As for his tactical ideas, Lopetegui will try to install a possession-based approach, one which Real Madrid didn’t really play under Zidane. The new coach understands what the Frenchman did for the club and has respect for him, so won’t launch a complete revolution, just as he didn’t when inheriting La Roja from Vicente Del Bosque, but there will be changes to Los Blancos’ style. There will be increased focus on dominating the midfield and Isco, who was so good for Spain under Lopetegui, is likely to be given an increased role.
Isco won’t be the only Spanish player set to benefit from the new boss’ arrival, as Lopetegui is known for his loyalty and is likely to trust the players he has previously worked with. That’s good news for Casemiro, who he had at Porto, and it should also be welcomed by the likes of Nacho, Jesús Vallejo, Álvaro Odriozola and Lucas Vázquez, players who are on the fringes of the starting XI but who will feel they have a headstart in the push to convince the gaffer.
It’s early days for Lopetegui in this new venture and it’s tough to draw too many conclusions – positive or negative – from an extra time UEFA Super Cup defeat to Atlético and a home league win over Getafe. It’s also difficult to know how he’ll settle into club management given his recent failure with Porto and given that this is his first ever season in LaLiga. There are reasons to doubt Lopetegui, but there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic too.
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