A sombre Zinedine Zidane – seated next to Florentino Perez, the club president – announced his departure from Real Madrid as one of the most decorated managers of our generation. He pointed out that Madrid’s current squad was urgently in need of change and that they had failed him in intensity and attitude while getting knocked out to Leganes at home. A couple of high profile managers were approached for the manager’s job, but the slot remained empty. Then Perez turned to Julen Lopetegui, clearly not as his first choice.
“As the last remaining credible candidate, Lopetegui was actually in strong position to assert that while he’d take the job in mid-July, he wouldn’t tolerate any public announcement or speculation about him being the man for the job until Spain’s campaign in Russia was well and truly over. This was a time to calculate the best way to begin with force, to not only show the new employer “who was boss” but also protect his current employment with a Spanish Federation headed by a guy, Luis Rubiales, who’d already proven that he loved to dispatch with the ancien regime.”(ESPN)
Nobody wants to be Julen Lopetegui right now. As recently as June this year, he looked set to take a confident Spanish national team to the World Cup. Spain had cruised through the qualifiers and was in excellent spirits going into the World Cup. Lopetegui should also have kept in mind that apart from a recent exception in Zidane, Perez was rarely hesitant about axing managers when things did not go well. Any proper calculation from his part would have made it clear that this was clearly second priority to his responsibility towards the national side in the World Cup literally only days away. He could even have kept Perez at bay for the time being, and bided his time waiting for his value in the market to increase, and have more credibility as a candidate. He did none of those things. On the 12th of June, Real Madrid put out an official statement saying Julen Lopetegui would take reins of the first team after the World Cup celebrations. Just like Spain at the World Cup, his time there was to be short, confusing, and best described as a hot mess no fan would want to talk about. It confounds me even now how Lopetegui signed off on this as he was preparing his team for football’s greatest competition, just 2 days away. Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish FA, felt he had no choice but to let Lopetegui go. And just like that, 2 days before the world cup, Lopetegui had to walk away from the opportunity to lead his nation to football’s greatest celebration.
Now that ‘the saddest day of my life’ was behind him and Spain had a train wreck of a world cup, it was time for him to win some at Real Madrid. The first 79 minutes of the UEFA Super Cup, against fierce rivals Atletico Madrid was perhaps the best bit of football Real played under Lopetegui. Real lost the game. The fact that the best football played under him was in a defeat to a domestic rival is a testimony to his 138 day reign at Los Blancos. The axe fell after a 5-1 thumping by FC Barcelona, but in truth it was only a matter of time by then. Having submitted to the power dynamic between him and Perez, Lopetegui also found he was unable to assert himself over his squad. He struggled with deciding the first choice goalkeeper. He couldn’t deal with the larger-than-the-manager egos that existed at the club, from players aware their longevity and importance to the club overshadowed his own. He couldn’t even use the tactics that had brought him to the limelight in his 2 fruitful years with Spain.
His biggest failure from the very beginning was his inability to get under the skin of his high profile squad. A team full of players that were so used to winning knockout games but not the best at grinding out league games one after the other. Plenty of times in his 14 match tenure the spectator could see an almost lazy team on the field, out of focus during set pieces and not committed to their own build up play. More than any enemy, it his failure to get the best out of his own squad that proved to be his undoing.
Real Madrid’s problems are far from over, but this blot will remain on Lopetegui’s resume as a reminder of his extraordinary failure. His failure to assert his independence in the initial negotiations, his failure in preventing it from affecting his chance at World Cup glory, his failure at establishing a positive power dynamic with Perez, and most of all, his failure to get the best out of a World Class team.