Once the shock over Real Madrid‘s hugely unexpected appointment of Julen Lopetegui has started to subside, we can start to assess why the Bernabeu giants made the move and how successful he might be.
The most obvious point to make is that Lopetegui has proven experience of successfully managing several Los Blancos players, with Sergio Ramos, Isco, Dani Carvajal, Marco Asensio, Nacho and Lucas Vazquez all included in Spain’s squad for the upcoming World Cup after helping to string together an extremely impressive qualifying campaign.
He also comes with a clearly defined style of play, an important consideration following the departure of a coach, Zinedine Zidane, who was repeatedly criticised for distinctly lacking a strong identity.
Zidane achieved a lot, of course, but it was always difficult to avoid the conclusion that his teams were more than a little haphazard, with their hit or miss form and lack of strong structure contributing to a very poor season in La Liga despite a fourth Champions League title in five seasons.
That kind of inconsistency won’t be tolerated in a new manager, and throughout his long managerial career – mostly spent with Spanish national teams of various age groups – Lopetegui has employed a possession based passing game bearing strong similarities to the tiki-taka approach championed by Pep Guardiola.
That will be good news for the technicians within the Madrid ranks, of which there are many, and it should not be difficult for Lopetegui to quickly develop a smooth playing style once he arrives at the Bernabeu after the World Cup.
Bale, in particular, will feel threatened by the existing relationships his new manager already holds with Asensio and Isco, with the latter being a particular favourite of Lopetegui’s ever since they won the European Under 21 championships together back in 2013.
Isco’s international career was hanging by a thread when Lopetegui took over the Spanish senior team a couple of years ago, having been left out of the squad for Euro 2016 by previous boss Vicente Del Bosque. But since then he has been promoted into a very prominent position, and an extremely impressive tally of eight goals in his last 11 internationals shows exactly how important he has become for Spain.
He is sure to start during this summer’s festivities in Russia, and unless he has a bad tournament it’s difficult to envisage Isco being left out of Lopetegui’s starting line-ups when they team up in Madrid next season.
And with plenty of scope for Asensio to also catch the eye in the World Cup, Bale will probably feel that he would be in danger of being marginalised if he stays at the Bernabeu.
Ronaldo’s case is somewhat different because Lopetegui would surely continue to use him as a goal-poaching striker if he can be persuaded to stay, but the Portuguese star may regard the appointment as a blow to his ego in the light of Lopetegui’s regular past comments that he believes Lionel Messi – not Ronaldo – to be the greatest player in history.
Everyone at the Bernabeu is expected to trot out the line that Ronaldo is the best player in the world, and at the very least the new manager will be placed under considerable pressure to backtrack on his previous statements if Ronaldo stays.
Before then, though, there’s the small matter of the World Cup finals, and the Spanish federation are sure to be hugely frustrated with the timing of the appointment – just three days before the highly anticipated group game against none other than Ronaldo’s Portugal.
The Spanish preparations have been going pretty well, aside from uncertainty over the identity of the starting striker, and it would be extremely regretful if the news that Lopetegui is leaving the post in a few weeks causes any disruption.
So, all Lopetegui has to do is win the World Cup with Spain and then replace Zidane at Real Madrid. That's some summer.— Andres Cordero (@DreCordero) June 12, 2018
Even if that’s not the case, it’s certain that people – especially Barcelona-based media – will be now actively looking for signs of discord within the camp.
Gerard Pique, for example, has always been very well protected by Lopetegui in the face of allegations that he doesn’t care enough about the national side due to his emotional attachment to his native region of Catalonia.
So far, there has been no question of any problem between the manager and the defender, but if anything happens to suggest that Pique is unhappy, or if he makes a costly mistake during the World Cup, it’s absolutely inevitable that rumours will start to abound about supposed rifts between the new Real Madrid manager and his Barcelona players.
If that attitude filters through to the players – and you can be sure it will be discussed among them – Spain’s World Cup challenge could quickly unravel. And if that happens, the prospect of Lopetegui arriving for his new job amid scenes of failure would be extremely concerning for Los Blancos.
So there are plenty of potential positives and potential negatives over this appointment. And it’s also a significant risk, for both parties.
That’s usually a forbidden stance for anyone connected to Madrid, and perhaps Lopetegui will take back his words given his new position as Cristiano Ronaldo‘s club manager, especially considering Madrid may need to put up quite a fight to convince the Portuguese star to stay the the club this summer.
In the meantime, Lopetegui will get a second chance to judge Ronaldo’s talents, up close, as Spain take on Portugal in their Group B-fixture at the World Cup on Friday.
After nine trophies that included three-consecutive Champions League titles in just two years and four months in charge of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane made certain that his would be a tough act to follow.
The man entrusted with the task of maintaining the Spanish giants’ incredible run of recent success is Julen Lopetegui.
An enormous job awaits the 51-year-old, who is currently leading Spain into the World Cup in Russia, as there are several issues that need addressing once his duties with the national team are concluded.
Reports linking David De Gea to Madrid just won’t go away and if there’s one manager who could persuade the Manchester United star to force the move through, it’s Lopetegui.
He’s shown great faith in the goalkeeper’s abilities having worked with the 25-year-old not just with Spain’s senior squad but also while he coached the younger age groups. Lopetegui will have to take a decision on Keylor Navas and accordingly act to recruit De Gea.
Resolving the futures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale swiftly will serve to pacify Madrid’s support. The Portugal star is likely angling for a pay-rise following his phenomenal form in 2018. Meanwhile, the club’s hierarchy will be keen on retaining Bale’s services after his Champions League final heroics.
The Wales forward, however, has demanded regular playing time. Lopetegui is a big fan of Spain internationals Isco and Marco Asensio, meaning he must decide whether it is worth giving into Bale’s demands.
With Zidane gone, Karim Benzema has lost his protective shield. The striker is dispensable but with Harry Kane signing a new six-year deal at Tottenham, Madrid’s options in the market are limited.
They could yet make a swoop for Robert Lewandowski or perhaps look at one of the strikers who have shone in Serie A. Lopetegui’s arrival also means a return for Valencia’s Rodrigo Moreno becomes a viable option.
Lopetegui’s extensive work with younger age groups makes him the perfect candidate to help Madrid blood some of the emerging youngsters. The likes of Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Mateo Kovacic need to be able to relieve midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.
At 32, centre-back Sergio Ramos will need replacing in the coming years as well with Jesus Vallejo slowly making the grade. Lopetegui will no doubt relish the opportunity to get the most out of Asensio in attack, as well.