How Julen Lopetegui redeemed himself at Sevilla

Julen Lopetegui lifted his first major trophy as a manager after Sevilla beat Inter Milan in the 2019-20 Europa League League final.
Julen Lopetegui lifted his first major trophy as a manager after Sevilla beat Inter Milan in the 2019-20 Europa League League final.
Aaron Gales

At the end of a spectacular 2019-20 Europa League final where Sevilla prevailed 3-2 over Inter Milan, the Andalusian club's manager Julen Lopetegui was overcome with emotion on the touchline.

It marked the first major honour of his managerial career and the icing on the cake after a wonderful first season in charge of Sevilla.

The win over Inter Milan meant so much to Lopetegui. It represented the culmination of a remarkable redemption story for a talented coach who had found himself hogging all the wrong headlines in 2018.

Lopetegui had successful spells with Spain's youth teams, winning the European Championships at the U-19 and U-21 levels in 2012 and 2013 respectively. After serving as the Porto manager for 18 months, Lopetegui was appointed as the manager of Spain in July 2016 where he was given the task of rebuilding the squad after a disappointing Euro 2016 campaign.

Displaying remarkable boldness in his decision-making, Lopetegui phased out the likes of Iker Casillas and Cesc Fabregas who had been key players in Spain's recent success in international and European competitions.

A rejuventated Spain qualified in style for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, with their 1-1 draw with Italy marking the only instance they dropped points in ten qualifying games. The 2010 winners entered the tournament as one of the favourites after winning 14 games and drawing six under Julen Lopetegui.

It was a remarkable run of form that attracted the attention of major club teams.

Following their third successive Champions League victory, Real Madrid were rocked by the shock resignation of their manager Zinedine Zidane. With Cristiano Ronaldo also on his way out of the club, Madrid needed a manager, and Julen Lopetegui fit the bill. The deal was announced on 12th June after the Spanish team landed in Russia and were making their final preparations for the tournament.

Unfortunately for Julen Lopetegui, the announcement was not well received by the Spanish football association. In a hastily arranged press conference, Julen Lopetegui was sacked and replaced by Fernando Hierro for the duration of the tournament.

The press conference announcing the sacking of Julen Lopetegui.
The press conference announcing the sacking of Julen Lopetegui.

RFEF (Royal Spanish Football Federation) president Luis Rubiales expressed his regret at the situation but laid the blame firmly at the door of Julen Lopetegui:

"I know there's going to be criticism whatever I do," Rubiales said at that time.
"I'm sure this will, in time, make us stronger. I admire Julen very much, I respect him very much. He seems a top trainer and that makes it harder to make the decision. You can't do things this way, two or three days before the World Cup. We have been compelled to make this decision," Rubiales commented.

As it turned out, Julen Lopetegui's move to Real Madrid quickly turned sour. Shorn of the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who averaged 50 goals a season in all competitions during his time at the club, Reak Madrid struggled big time. Subsequently Julen Lopetegui's Madrid reign, which lasted only 14 games, was cut short after a thrashing at the hands of the Spanish club's arch-rivals Barcelona.

Sevilla came to Julen Lopetegui's rescue

Sevilla appointed Julen Lopetegui as their manager in 2019-20.
Sevilla appointed Julen Lopetegui as their manager in 2019-20.

Following his failed Madrid stint, Julen Lopetegui was out of work for nine months and must have wondered if his career in top-level management was over. However, Sevilla came to his rescue.

After the departure of the club's caretaker manager Joaquin Caparros, Sevilla needed an experienced campaigner who could transform the club's fortunes.

Since Unai Emery had upped sticks to move to PSG in the summer of 2016, Sevilla had been in a state of permanent transition. No manager at the club lasted for more than a season in charge, and not surprisingly, the club were trophyless during this period.

This lack of success led to the return of Monchi as Sevilla's sporting director. Monchi had been previously successful working alongside Emery and was available to join the club after leaving his role at AS Roma in March 2019.

Julen Lopetegui was appointed the new Sevilla manager in June, and Monchi oversaw a huge squad overhaul that saw 18 players brought in at a cumulative cost of €177 million and over 20 players depart the club.

The challenge for Julen Lopetegui at the Sevilla helm, however, was a monumental one. He had to mould his squad into a unit capable of challenging for domestic and European honours. And as it turned out, Julen Lopetegui did it with aplomb.

The journey for Lopetegui wasn't necessarily a smooth one, though. There were some hiccups along the way as Sevilla lost three out of four La Liga games in September and early October. But from the middle of November, Sevilla were never out of the top four.

After four consecutive draws in June, Sevilla finished the domestic season with a flourish, winning five of their last six games to qualify for next season's Champions League. That run of form provided a great deal of confidence for the team heading into the Europa League mini tournament where they ended up winning their sixth title in the competition.

Julen Lopetegui's success in 2019-20 was defined by his ability to make decisive decisions in key moments, with two of them particularly standing out.

Striker Luuk De Jong was signed by Sevilla the previous summer but had generally struggled to adapt to life in Spain. Scoring just six goals in 35 league appearances, he was in the middle of an 11-game goal drought, That was when Julen Lopetegui brought him on in the Europa League semi-final against Manchester United.

De Jong scored the winner against the English club and was duly rewarded with a place in the starting lineup for the final against Inter Milan. He didn't disappoint, scoring two outstanding headers as Sevilla recovered from an early deficit to seal a thrilling 3-2 win.

Luuk De Jong repaid the faith of Julen Lopetegui with two outstanding headers in the Europa League final.
Luuk De Jong repaid the faith of Julen Lopetegui with two outstanding headers in the Europa League final.

At the other end of the pitch, Julen Lopetegui had another big decision to make, especially heading into the Europa League finale.

In 41 appearances in all competitions during the season, Tomas Vaclik had been outstanding in goal and was the club's undisputed number one. However, Vaclik picked up a knee injury in Sevilla's 1-0 victory over Eibar in early July.

Julen Lopetegui now had to turn to his backup option Yassine Bounou who had mainly featured in cup competitions for the club. Bounou rose to the challenge and was nothing short of outstanding in Vaclik's absence.

When Tomas Vaclik was back from injury, it left Julen Lopetegui with a difficult decision to make. But Lopetegui chose to stick with Bounou, and the decision paid off as the goalkeeper saved a penalty against Wolves and was outstanding in the semi-final win over Manchester United.

With a top-four finish and a continental trophy after only his first season in charge of Sevilla, Julen Lopetegui completed his redemption in some style. The 54-year-old former Spain goalkeeper has overcome some incredibly difficult times to make his mark in the highest levels of European football.

The Europa League victory with Sevilla marks the first signficant success of Julen Lopetegui's managerial career. One would hope, it is not his last.

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Edited by Bhargav


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