Julen Lopetegui seems to be wrapped up in ups and downs. As he’s trying to live up to the expectations of the fans who have been spoiled by the recent-past success of Zinedine Zidane’s side. But whose job was tougher?
Published By: Nirbhay Singh
Zinedine Zidane was a player turned manager. The French World Cup winner had an aura of his own which demanded respect and enforced command over his co-workers. The Real Madrid legend was working as a manager of the youth side of the club, Castilla. He was given the responsibility of the first team as interim relief in mid of 2015-16 season as Real Madrid sacked their head coach Rafa Benitez.
The Frenchman exceeded everyone’s expectations and ended up winning the UEFA Champions League in that season. When he took over the job Real Madrid were trailing by 10 points to the La Liga leaders FC Barcelona, which Zidane reduced to 1 point in the end. The following season Zidane won the UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, LaLiga, and UEFA Champions League once again. In his last season, Zidane managed to win UEFA Super Cup, Supercopa de Espana, FIFA Club World Cup and the UEFA Champions League for the record 3d consecutive time.
All these achievements on paper didn’t satisfy many of the experts who felt that Real Madrid was benefiting due to individual brilliance they had in their squad. They believed that Zidane did a good job in man management of dealing well with the star players, as he himself was a galactico once. He wasn’t lauded as a masterclass tactician as Julen Lopetegui is.
However, even though in his last season Zidane won the UEFA Champions League title, the accomplishment couldn’t shadow the poor performance in LaLiga and Copa Del Rey. Real Madrid finished 17 points behind the champions of LaLiga, FC Barcelona. They were also eliminated by the humble side CD Leganes in the quarterfinals of the Copa Del Rey.
Zidane realized that his cycle had come to an end and it was time to leave gracefully. He announced his resignation shortly after the two players, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale expressed their desire to leave. With the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, Gareth Bale decided to stay as now the club’s main man role was given to him.
No coach was willing to take the Real Madrid job. Many of the managers were approached but all declined for the pressure which comes along with it. Especially the raised expectations after the precedent set by the success of Zinedine Zidane. Since 1999, only 2 managers out of 14, have seen the end of their contract in Real Madrid, others were either sacked or they themselves resigned.
In such a scenario Real Madrid contacted the Spanish NT coach Julen Lopetegui who agreed for the job. He was earlier decided to take over after the World Cup 2018. Later, he was fired by the Spanish FA for signing a contract with Real Madrid just before the commencement of the World Cup. This was one of the initial setbacks the Spaniard had to face.
After 3 weeks of Lopetegui’s appointment, Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer with 451 goals in 439 appearances, left the club after serving the whites for 9 years. As he joined the Italian club Juventus. Other club legends such as Luka Modric, Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, etc are also nearing their retirement stage which rings the bell to involve more of young players like Dani Ceballos, Vallejo, Reguillon, Odriozola etc.
This meant Lopetegui had to create a new identity for the club by scraping the old plan which was being used for nearly a decade. The team had to involve more players in the game and work with collective responsibility. A shift from a counter-attacking system to more possession-based play. From giving one man the responsibility to score goals to asking several players to step up. From banking on outscoring the opponent to defending the lead by keeping clean sheets.
Real Madrid has already recorded to have more of possession this season than in last 2 decades. The team has been hurt on several occasions due to individual errors but the state of transition is clearly visible. The coach is in a situation where if he wins, he wouldn’t be credited for his work of building a self-sufficient team, but if he loses a single game the club will be said to lacking the brilliance of Ronaldo.
Julen Lopetegui is managing a job similar to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid. He may not get immediate success but he is preparing the core of the team with a new style of play which will serve the club in the long-term project. Maybe a manager who comes after 5 years will be enriched to inherit a team with set identity and core and will win titles more easily. Similar to how Zidane benefitted from the work of predecessors, Jose Mourinho, and Carlo Ancelotti. So it will not be outrageous to say Julen Lopetegui is facing a greater challenge than that of Zinedine Zidane. Will he be more or less successful will depend on how we measure the success.