Lopetegui’s fate at Real Madrid was likely sealed before heavy Clasico defeat

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By the time you read this, Julen Lopetegui has been fired as manager of Real Madrid, and the joke will be that he and Florentino Perez managed to screw up both Spain’s World Cup and the first half of Real Madrid’s campaign, all in less than five months. It’s cruel, sure. But also in some ways, it’s apt given the clunky way in which his appointment was announced and the way the past few months have unfolded.

There’s a basic axiom that every club ought to follow but often doesn’t, because clubs are run by humans and humans are run by emotions: you don’t sack or retain a manager based on the result of a single game. Not only are results of individual prone to luck and happenstance, but if you think he has the tools to succeed, a bad result isn’t going to change that. Nor will a good result suddenly right the ship if you think it’s sinking.

But the Clasico has its own rules and so too does Florentino’s mind. Barcelona road-graded Real Madrid in the first 45 minutes (sack him!). They were 2-0 up but it could well have been twice as many, given the way Jordi Alba was torturing Nacho, the way Luis Suarez was carrying the attack and the manner in which Sergio Busquets was lording over the middle of the park.

Then, for the first half of the second 45, after removing Raphael Varane from his misery (and the pitch) and switching to a back three, they looked like a team that could turn things around. Marcelo, who has scored 75 percent of Madrid’s goals in the past month — reflect on the absurdity of that stat for a minute — pulled one back. Luka Modric sent a chance he ought to have buried off the post instead. Karim Benzema missed a sitter.

For those 25 minutes it looked as if the tide could be turned for Lopetegui and Madrid; Suarez’s header, when he bent the laws of physics to his will thumping an improbably powerful header past Thibaut Courtois, ended all that. Exceptional players do exceptional things that turn games, and Suarez remains an exceptional center-forward even though, to that point, he had scored twice from open play in the previous 15 games.

That was that. At 3-1, they weren’t going to recover. Real Madrid had no choice but to swashbuckle forward in the most desperate, disorganised way, and Barca ran up the score to five, although it could well have been more.

Games hinge on incidents, which is why an analysis has to be based on performance, not result. So too any evaluation of a manager. The mere fact that Modric’s finish hit the post might have been a matter of inches and infinitesimal angles, but it would not have changed some basic facts.

One is that Barcelona finished 17 points ahead of Real Madrid last season for a reason, and stripping them of Lionel Messi and Madrid of Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t alter the fact that there is a lot of ground to make up. Another is that even if you strip away the last 15 minutes and the three goals Barca scored, they were much the better side for twice as long as Madrid in the rest of the game.

That, ultimately, is why Lopetegui is gone less than 24 hours later.
Lopetegui was recruited with the tag as a “system manager,” a guy who would emphasize possession, team play and creativity, the traits we saw in his Spain team, and that, arguably, hasn’t been a defining characteristic of any Madrid boss since Manuel Pellegrini — some might say even since Jorge Valdano. This was meant to be modern, in keeping with the times.

Real Madrid have been better than their results under Lopetegui — for starters, in all competitions they are underperforming xG (Expected Goals) by seven goals — but the gap is down to individual talent that was already there, not down to his system. And yes, the absence of Isco no doubt slowed his development (although he was a non-factor against Barcelona), but Sergio Ramos’ words after the match spoke volumes.

“Often, managing a dressing room is more important than tactical knowledge,” he said. This, coming from the club captain and the man who was instrumental in bringing Lopetegui to the Bernabeu, showed things are beyond repair.
As for Barca, it’s two wins in two against Inter and Real Madrid without Lionel Messi, with seven goals scored and one conceded. The de facto 4-5-1, with Rafinha and Philippe Coutinho starting wide, gives you plenty of density and comfort on the ball in the middle of the park, and as long as this version of Suarez shows up (or the one we saw against Inter, conjuring up picture-perfect assists), it’s an alternative way of playing.

Down the road, even when Messi returns, you’d imagine Ernesto Valverde will want to find more minutes for Ousmane Dembele, while Coutinho is still far from his ceiling. There’s still work to be done at the back as well. But for now, needless to say, even with the wobbles after the break, this was an important and encouraging win.

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