The unfulfilled promise of Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid and the ugly aftermath

Ever had that feeling in life when something is doomed from the start such as a business initiative or a relationship? Just ask Julen Lopetegui, Real Madrid’s recently sacked manager. How do you go from being the man tasked with heralding a new era of Spanish dominance to being fired from two of the most coveted coaching positions in world football in a span of 4 months? Once again, the answer to the question lies with Mr. Julen Lopetegui.

As cliched as it sounds, life has its ups and downs. If anything, the only constant is the transient nature of life. However, it surely takes some doing and some truly unique circumstances to have such a rapid downfall.

With the dust having settled at Real Madrid and interim manager Santiago Solari being given a permanent contract till 2021, it may finally be time to shed light on a coaching stint that had the makings of greatness and yet may have been doomed even before it began. What appears to be adding even more fuel to the fire is Solari’s uninspired and controversial stint thus far.

So, what happened earlier this season and what is really going on at Los Galacticos?

Julen Lopetegui’s Moment of Weakness

While being a gifted individual and having loads of ability is one thing, being able to sense the tide is another thing entirely. When Lopetegui was contacted by Florentino Perez about taking over the managerial reins at Real Madrid, following Zidane’s shock resignation; he should have thought twice. He should have guessed that something was amiss and that there may have been some thing deeper that caused Zidane to resign. After all Zidane had just come through a very difficult league campaign and somehow managed to pull off another miracle in the form of a third consecutive champions league.

Lopetegui on the other hand had just led Spain to the World Cup on the back of an unbeaten qualification campaign. More importantly, Spain had looked completely revitalised and emerged as possible contenders for the World Cup. So, what could cause a man potentially on the cusp of the greatest moment in his fledgling coaching career to throw it all away; even for one of the greatest football clubs in world history?

They say that one has to grab the opportunities thrown one’s way in life. While this is true, one should at times exercise caution in doing so. Perhaps Lopetegui took the saying too literally. When a coach who was considered as only the 5th or 6th choice in the pecking order was contacted; it should stand to reason that there must have been strong motivations behind other illustrious names not accepting the offer of head honcho at Real. Perhaps the glitz and glamour of coaching a club as big as Real clouded his decision making.

Decision making on the other hand is something that Zidane shares few equals with in the footballing world.

Real’s Inherent Problems

Real might have created history last season by winning an unprecedented third consecutive champions league title. Yet the plain truth is that the champions league victory merely papered over the cracks within the squad and the club. The 2017-18 season was supposed to be the season where Real finally did the treble and conquered all. While the season did start off with two extremely convincing super cup victories, the rest of the season was extremely disappointing.

It is highly possible that the success of previous seasons had resulted in some complacency within the squad. Hence, they were unable to sustain that level of performance throughout. Although Real limped over the finish line in the champions league, the entire campaign had taken its toll on Zidane. Zidane clearly realised that the squad was in need of some kind of shake-up and a new direction was needed in order to ensure continued success.

Owing to the low-profile nature of Zidane’s managerial style, it still isn’t really clear what kind of changes Zidane had in mind. After having seen the current season unfold, however, one begins to get an idea behind Zidane’s shock resignation.

Many of Real’s stars and veterans have put in largely underwhelming performances this season. Among these under-performers, the one whose name stands out the most is Luka Modric. His performances for the most part have looked very uninspiring and tired after a terrific performance last season and in the World Cup. To be fair, he has been looking like his old self in recent games. At the same time, it should be noted that he has been a regular starter throughout the entirety of the first half and that has had its effects.

Another of Real’s issues has been its goal production. When Ronaldo left, the board assumed that the trio of Bale, Benzema and Asensio would share goal scoring responsibilities. Hence, the board decided not to sign a high-profile striker or forward. The only notable summer signing was ex Castilla player Mariano Diaz from Lyon after a great last season. That said, Mariano Diaz was not expected to start and was primarily signed as a back-up to Benzema.

For all of Real’s talent up-front, the goals just haven’t been coming with the forward line being extremely profligate in front of goal. To make matters more interesting, there are some rumours that Zidane wanted Bale out of the club and planned to extend Ronaldo’s stay at the club. Club president Florentino Perez reportedly disagreed with Zidane as he wanted his prize asset to stay at the club; thus, causing Zidane to resign.

The Bright Start

Despite the controversial circumstances surrounding Lopetegui’s appointment as manager, it seemed like the perfect appointment on paper. A prominent feature of Zidane’s managerial stint was a clear lack of team identity or playing style. There were phases when it appeared as though the team was playing in a certain way, employing a certain formation or playing with certain personnel. Just when one thought he knew what to expect with Real, Zidane would entirely re-shuffle the team dynamic. During the first phase of his tenure, this kept things fresh by keeping the players on their toes and constantly taking the opposition by surprise. Later on, though, this seemed to confuse his own players.

Lopetegui seemed like just the man to take the team forward. His more updated take on tiki-taka with heavy emphasis on counter-pressing, a more fluid & direct style and heavy off-the-ball movement had all the ingredients for success. To set things up even better, the team had signed a lot of young Spanish talent in recent years and quite a few of them were familiar with his methods. Last but certainly not the least, the team had Isco Alarcon, his pet student from the Spanish youth and senior national teams. Of all the managers that have headed Real since Mourinho, no one understood Isco quite like Lopetegui. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a significant part of Spain’s successes at the youth and senior levels under Lopetegui were due to the brilliant technical abilities of Isco. So, it only seemed like the logical choice to build the new Real Madrid around the talented playmaker.

In spite of an early super cup loss to Atletico, the 2018-19 season started off in great style. Real rose to the top of the table after some very convincing performances in the league. The front three truly impressed with their off the ball movement and link up play. Benzema appeared to have broken the shackles and shades of his fearless old Lyon self were on display. Most notably, Real’s chance creation rate was on a far superior level than what had been seen in the previous season. Then came the game against Roma in the Champions League and the Merengue faithful bore witness to an absolute masterclass. A mediocre Roma side could get absolutely nowhere near Real’s dynamic movement and were decimated. At the heart of it all was Isco Alarcon; pulling the strings and dictating the tempo of the game. Lopetegui’s emphasis on the collective was paying dividends.

The Rapid Descent

Following the initial success, Lopetegui’s toughest month yet, awaited him. In a packed schedule, Real were due to face the likes of Sevilla, Atletico, Barcelona etc. Unfortunately for Lopetegui, his biggest master stroke would also prove to be his biggest mistake. Building the team around the talents of Isco was a terrific decision as he understood Lopetegui’s fluid possession and inter changing of positions like no other. At the same time, this would also prove to be the Achilles heel for Real. In his most difficult moment, Isco would be ruled out for a month due to Appendicitis. In the absence of Isco, Real appeared a confused side with no movement between the lines. As a result, there was a lot of stale possession but with no clear idea as to how to execute Lopetegui’s lofty footballing plans. It was very similar to Spain’s games in the world cup following Lopetegui’s sacking.

In the games where Real did create quality chances, the forwards started stuttering in front of goal. A string of losses and draws followed, creating a lot of pressure on Lopetegui. Additionally, despite solving Real’s chance creation problems from the previous season, he couldn’t effectively fix Real’s problems with defending in transition.

With his job on the line, Real were set to face Barcelona in the El Classico. In a desperate move, Lopetegui hurried Isco’s recovery following his surgery and he was immediately thrust into the starting line-up against Barcelona. Needless to say, all the negative momentum culminated in a disastrous 5-1 loss and Lopetegui was promptly fired.

The final verdict on Lopetegui appears to be a little harsh and unfair even if warranted. Under Lopetegui, Real’s chance creation rate was second only to Barcelona in the league. Also, in a situation rarely seen in super clubs today, many of the players felt bad that Lopetegui was sacked and openly expressed their gratitude towards him. There is a good possibility that Lopetegui might have been able to turn the situation around given more time especially considering that the players vocally supported him. However, in modern day football, especially at Real, results matter and that meant Lopetegui was out.

Enter Solari

Following the disastrous El Classico, Real appointed Castilla coach Santiago Solari as its interim coach. This appointment seemed strange to say the least. Santiago Solari, while a great player in his day, didn’t exactly have a stellar record with Real Madrid Castilla. More curiously, he hadn’t managed to extract the best out of young talents such as the promising Paraguayan forward Sergio Diaz who was constantly played out of position.

All this notwithstanding, Santiago Solari managed to get some very positive results in his first few games with the club and hence was rewarded with a long-term contract till 2021. While his initial results were positive, the way the team played appeared to be disjointed. If Real’s play last season appeared stale, then it started appearing to be even more disjointed under Solari. While Lopetegui and Zidane emphasised on a more fluid playing structure, Solari appeared to be extremely rigid with his team structure. The emphasis on pressing under Lopetegui also seemed to have disappeared with the team sitting back a little.

After the initial run of positive results, the team’s results have been mixed ever since. More than the team’s results however, what appears to be a cause for concern is the team’s lack of ideas going forward. Although Solari can be credited with making the team defensively more solid, there appears to be no cutting edge in attack. Real’s match against Betis is a case in point where one could be forgiven for thinking that Real was a relegation threatened team playing Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side at its peak. It appears as though Solari favours a rigid team structure, defensive solidity and quick attacks with less possession. As a result, real’s most creative and fluid attackers, Isco and Marcelo, have found minutes hard to come by.

Even more bizarre is Solari’s on going cold war with Isco. It isn’t really clear what caused the tension between the two but its obvious that something is broken in their relationship. The constant transfer rumours and media questions surrounding Isco’s lack of starts haven’t helped team morale either. Under the present circumstances, it seems odd that the likes of Fede Valverde regularly start ahead of Isco given that Real is in dire need of creativity in the final third. Isco and Marcelo are the team’s most press resistant players and Real’s difficulty in getting out of a press under Solari has been exacerbated by their lack of minutes.

It must also be noted that ever since taking over, Solari has placed an emphasis on Castilla and former Castilla players. Allowing home-grown talent to blossom is not only a huge source of pride for clubs but can also enhance their brand value and reduce their spending on big name players. At the same time, his decision to give certain former Castilla players minutes over players who could make a difference is puzzling. A notable exception to this is Marcos Llorente, who has been nothing short of brilliant in his limited minutes as Casemiro’s replacement.

On the flip side to all of this strange decision making is the emergence of Vinicius Junior. It must be said that for all of Lopetegui’s great ideas, he didn’t seem to have enough trust in Vinicius at the time. Solari, on the other hand has given Vinicius complete freedom to fearlessly run at the opposition at every opportunity. Solari’s faith in Vinicius has been vindicated with the Brazilian youngster reciprocating in kind with some terrific performances. Although Vinicius is raw, his tireless running, dribbling, defensive tracking and runs off-the-ball have really caught the eye. At a time when Real Madrid appears completely out of ideas in attack, Vinicius often seems to be the lone bright spark making things happen and creating chances.

An Uncertain Future

Real’s form and results of late appear to be picking up. The midfield metronome Luka Modric is also starting to perform like his old self. With the business end of the season in sight, things are far from straightforward for Real. Even if Los Blancos do manage to win some silverware at the end of the season, greater questions lie.

Is Solari really the right person to take this club forward? What happens to the likes of Isco and Marcelo? Will Real finally sign some big-name players such as Eden Hazard and revert to their old Galactico ways?

Nothing is set in stone and the way things are presently heading, the road ahead for Los Blancos is a tricky one. Whatever happens, football fans can expect one hell of a rocky roller coaster ride!!

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