In a way, it was the obvious choice. But almost no-one saw it coming.
Amid all the intense speculation over who would succeed Zinedine Zidane as Real Madrid manager after his shock resignation a fortnight ago, the name of Julen Lopetegui was barely mentioned.
Mauricio Pochettino, Jürgen Klopp and Guti were among the favourites, and their relative merits spawned endless debate in the Spanish sports media. Then, out of nowhere, all the words spoken and written were rendered meaningless by the surprise revelation that the Spain manager would be taking over at Real Madrid after this summer’s World Cup.
The timing of Lopetegui’s unveiling was more than a little startling, as it came just three days before Spain’s opening World Cup fixture against reigning European champions Portugal, and indeed Lopetegui had only recently signed a new two-year contract extension with the national side.
Although there is some concern that the timing of the announcement will unsettle Spain’s World Cup plans, it is understandable from Real Madrid’s point of view; they needed to have a manager in place as soon as possible to demonstrate a level of stability to the transfer market, as well as to their fans.
Many of those fans are underwhelmed or disappointed with the appointment of Lopetegui, pointing to his relative lack of experience and success as a club manager.
Zidane obviously has huge shoes to fill, given his status as a club legend and his frankly ridiculous return of three Champions League titles in just two-and-a-half seasons as a manager, but there are reasons to be optimistic that Lopetegui can continue in the same vein.
A goalkeeper by trade, Lopetegui has long-established links to Real Madrid, having joined them as a 19-year-old back in 1985. He made 61 appearances for Real Madrid Castilla (also known as the B team), and featured once in La Liga for the first team in 1990 before leaving for Logroñés the following year.
He returned to manage the Castilla for a season in 2008, and it was there that he earned his stripes as a coach. He went on to manage the national side at under 19, under 20 and under 21 levels before taking the top job, and it’s fair to say that his reputation was built on his ability to get the best out of young players.
This is where he will be most useful to Real Madrid.
For all the success Zidane enjoyed as manager, integrating young players was not his strongest suit. He used the outrageously talented Marco Asensio sparingly, and the likes of Theo Hernández and Dani Ceballos – who joined Los Blancos last summer to great fanfare – have hardly featured at all.
The time is now for the next generation to be assimilated into the first team, as the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos are unlikely to last longer than the next few seasons at the very most, and Lopetegui’s history of working with young players means he is better equipped than most to oversee this challenge.
That’s not to say that he can’t handle experienced players and big egos as well, though. Despite being relatively untested at the top level of management, he still has experience of managing big names and big personalities, having worked with the likes of Ramos, Gerard Piqué and Iker Casillas.
The fact that he knows a lot of the players from the national side should also work in his favour, and he is understood to be very popular among the players in la selección. There are six Real Madrid players in the Spain squad for the World Cup, who will no doubt welcome him to Madrid once their Russian mission is complete.
The atmosphere he has created in the national side is harmonious and convivial, which is no mean feat given the bitter, deep-seated club rivalries that exist in the Spanish game. If he is able to create the same effect at Real Madrid, it will play well with the squad. One of the reasons for Zidane’s success was the brotherhood he fostered between the players and the management. In the words of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, he “turned this team into a family”. Given Lopetegui has had a similar effect on the Spain squad, he should be well-equipped to maintain the high morale in the Real Madrid dressing room.
Despite all this, the job is obviously not without its pitfalls. Lopetegui may have to oversee a period of transition at Real Madrid, as the futures of Ronaldo, Benzema and Gareth Bale are all up in the air. As ever with Real Madrid, there is no time to bed in, or tolerance of failure. There may be significant changes to the squad beyond Lopetegui’s control, but he will be the one to take the fall if things go even slightly off track.
The timing of his appointment has added even more short-term pressure on him, and any failure at the World Cup could see his reputation shredded before he even arrives in Madrid.
There are also stark differences between the pressures of managing an international side and those of managing a club side to take into account, particularly a club that is subject to such intense media and fan scrutiny as Real Madrid.
But the way in which Lopetegui has calmly responded to the pressures of managing the national side will certainly stand him in good stead in his role as Real Madrid manager. He is seemingly unfazed by any challenge, and although his appointment has come as a huge surprise, Lopetegui’s temperament, credentials and connections to the club all speak of a man who has what it takes to follow in Zidane’s giant footsteps.
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