Julen Lopetegui - The National Team Soap Opera and Future in Madrid
On the eve of June 12th, 2018 – two days before the curtain raiser for what is the most prestigious prize there is in football – Real Madrid released a statement which set off a chain of various events in the Spanish camp.
Julen Lopetegui was announced as Zinedine Zidane’s successor at the Santiago Bernabeu after his maiden World Cup campaign with the Spanish National side.
This statement hit European football like a bolt out of the blue for a number of reasons. Firstly, approximately three weeks prior to this announcement, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) publicly stated that Lopetegui has extended his contract with the national side till 2022, effectively keeping him in charge till the 2022 World Cup to be held in Qatar.
Many media outlets such as MARCA and SPORT reported that this news came as a shock to the relatively new President of the RFEF Luis Rubiales. Marca delves into further detail by stating that Rubiales was informed of Lopetegui’s decision five minutes prior to Real Madrid releasing their statement.
The deal was negotiated by the to-be Real manager’s super-agent Jorge Mendes with the notorious Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid.
Luis Rubiales did not agree that the manager’s decision to take over at Real Madrid should have been made public before the crucial World Cup campaign, and decided to take strict action regardless of the consequences that might potentially follow.
The RFEF scheduled a press conference on the morning of 13th June 2018 headed by Rubiales. Upon this press conference being delayed by an hour, various Spanish reports claimed that Lopetegui was to be removed as the Spanish national team’s head coach and other options were being considered.
At the press conference, Rubiales confirmed these reports by stating that the former Porto manager was being removed from his position with immediate effect.
Here are Rubiales’ quotes from the press conference, as reported by MARCA :
"We have been forced to do without Lopetegui. I have spoken with the players, and I can guarantee that they will do everything they can with the new coaching staff, we are in a very difficult situation.
I do not feel betrayed because Julen has done a relentless job, but we are forced to move on this because of how things have been done.
He is a professional, but this is not correct and we can't look the other way.
You can't do things like that, five minutes before it's official.
I saw it in the press, it had already happened, and because of my responsibility, I know that whatever I do, there will be criticism.
Julen would have liked things to have been done differently.
I don't have to judge Real Madrid, the one who brought the matter to him is responsible because things can't be done that way."
Upon further consideration, the RFEF, after a short while, announced former Spanish defender Fernando Hierro as the man to take over from Julen Lopetegui as head coach of the national side – one day before the tournament commences.
It is also worth noting that Rubiales took a swipe at ‘the one who brought the matter to him’, i.e. Lopetegui’s agent Jorge Mendes.
So what now for the former Real Madrid Castilla manager?
After the devastating news so close to Spain’s maiden showing in Russia – a crunch showdown against Fernando Santos and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal – he now has the summer off to regroup and prepare for a brand new adventure at his first professional club, Real Madrid.
His predecessor Zinedine Zidane did him no favours by raising the bar of expectations by guiding the stellar Los Blancos squad to three consecutive UEFA Champions League titles.
The Frenchman had initially taken over as an interim head coach after the inauspicious sacking of Rafa Benitez but stayed on as the manager after an abundance of immediate success.
Lopetegui began his professional playing career at Real Madrid where he spent six years before leaving the club for playing time. The former goalkeeper knows the values of the club and more importantly, knows the players at the club as many of them were part of the U-21 and U-19 European Championship teams led to victories by Lopetegui.
Biggest winners and losers of Lopetegui’s appointment at Real Madrid
Perhaps the biggest winner of this deal, Isco Alarcon is a firm favourite of the incoming Real Madrid manager. The diminutive playmaker was one of the star men of the UEFA U-21 Championship winning side managed by Lopetegui.
During his two year stint as the head coach of La Roja, Isco has seen his game time increase significantly – and it would be fair to say the Spaniard can expect more of the same at Real Madrid.
Isco has spent most part of the four seasons since he moved to Madrid from Malaga attempting to seal his berth in the starting XI. Yet, until injuries struck, Isco found game time hard to come by very often.
The magnificent Spaniard managed to start just 21 games in the La Liga in 17-18, scoring and assisting seven goals. But, with the national side under Lopetegui, Isco has starred multiple times over the last two years – he was at the heart of Spain’s 4-0 mauling of Italy and the 6-1 demolition of Argentina.
Isco played a number of roles for Spain during this stint ranging from a playmaker to an inside forward. Expect Lopetegui’s Madrid to feature Isco at the heart of matters.
There isn’t a whole lot of criticism you can throw at a defensive midfielder who has won an astonishing four UEFA Champions League titles by the age of 26, starting in three of those finals. Yet, Casemiro is criticized unfairly for his gritty and raw playing style, most recently by Spanish maestro Xavi Hernandez.
After a season out on loan at Porto during the 14-15 season, it was initially Benitez who brought the Brazilian into the starting XI at Real due to a lack of traditional destroyers (after the departure of Sami Khedira). Zidane, upon taking over from the now-Newcastle manager continued to do so and helped cement Casemiro’s place in the starting line-up.
If there was even the slightest doubt of Casemiro’s importance to Real Madrid, Lopetegui’s appointment is as good as it gets for the Brazilian’s stay in Madrid. The Basque manager has already spoken of his admiration for Casemiro, and it was he who signed the midfield destroyer for Porto in the first place.
Speaking to Marca in 2016, Lopetegui said: "He's got a clear idea of what he brings to the table and his mission on the pitch. He was decisive for us at Porto. He's always on hand to provide balance.
For an attack-minded team, like we were and Real Madrid are, that makes him a key figure. He's always well positioned, constantly covering and offering an outlet. What's more, his physical prowess means he wins every 50-50, and he makes intelligent use of the ball".
Casemiro is another firm winner from Lopetegui’s appointment.
Marco Asensio, Dani Ceballos, and the young stars at Real Madrid
Real Madrid have arguably the most stellar squad in Europe, which also consists of a new generation of young, fresh blood waiting in the wings to take over from the ageing first XI.
Marco Asensio, Theo Hernandez, Nacho Fernandez, Dani Ceballos, Borja Mayoral, Marcos Llorente and Matteo Kovacic are just some of the relatively young stars available at Los Blancos’ disposal – and they will all benefit heavily from this appointment.
Lopetegui has had a very impressive record working with under-age players and nurturing them into becoming world beaters. This also suits Madrid’s more recently adopted transfer strategy to invest in youth and potential stars.
Throw in the delayed arrival of Brazilian wonder-kid Vinicius Jr., and the potential purchases of right-back Alvaro Odriozola and Brazilian sensation Rodrygo Goes – a new era of unbelievable potential is waiting to be unlocked by the capable and proven skills of the Basque manager.
They could very well expect to be integrated gradually into the fray by their new coach and are all beneficiaries of this deal.
The Welshman is potentially the biggest loser from the appointment of Lopetegui’s arrival at the Santiago Bernabeu. The tactics employed by the former Castilla manager during his stint with Spain can substantiate this further.
His possession-based philosophy and under-reliance on out and out wingers do not make a good reading for Bale, who has not only been blighted by injuries but has also been accused of showing a lack of commitment to the team.
Although it might be premature to jump to such a conclusion, things do not look very bright for the former Spurs man’s future at the Bernabeu. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Florentino Perez cash in on his marquee player while he still can, as well.
Bale's statements regarding his future after his explosive performance in Kiev add fuel to the fire after the player refused to commit his future to Los Blancos.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema
Ronaldo’s and Benzema’s futures at Madrid might not necessarily be connected to Lopetegui’s arrival. But there are a few factors that once again, might not make a good reading for the talismanic duo.
They are both ageing stars (Benzema turns 31 at the end of this year and Ronaldo turned 33 just a few months ago) who might be at the end of their stay at the Bernabeu.
Lopetegui is essentially tasked with leading an all-conquering Madrid side into a new era, which might mean a revamp could be in order. It is also worth noting that Madrid have spent next to nothing over the last couple of summers, with their last major purchase being James Rodriguez after the 2014 World Cup.
Their constant links to ‘Galactico’ players around the globe such as Mohamed Salah, Neymar Jr. and Eden Hazard also are very much active, which could mean they have a blazing summer with a number of star names coming in – and naturally, a few star departures.
Ronaldo’s flirtation with PSG could work well for Real as Neymar’s dream to don the white of Los Blancos is a well-documented fact. Even if Benzema does manage to extend his stay, Benzema (in theory) will be pushed to playing second fiddle to a Galactico signing.