Why Julen Lopetegui at Real Madrid was doomed to fail — the inside story

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The two most significant things Julen Lopetegui did to get himself sacked as Real Madrid manager happened before he was even appointed by Florentino Perez.

First, he failed to listen. Second, he failed to calculate.

Those who point to his team’s 5-1 thrashing at the Camp Nou on Sunday or to the Santiago Bernabeu humiliation at the hands of Levante — take your pick of moments, matches or maudlin images of the defeated Basque — are wrong.

Lopetegui, according to the Real Madrid communique that was issued, hasn’t been sacked because of a specific result or because Perez, in his wisdom, has been vigilant around the training ground and sees deep flaws in the sessions or the ideas being taught at Valdebebas. No, it is because of the “disparity between the high-quality squad and the low-quality performances” that the former Spain manager, who gave up his chance to compete for a World Cup victory for what has turned out to be a 138-day, 14-game stint in charge of Madrid, has been kicked out.

That’s what the Real Madrid letter of dismissal explains, and here’s where the clues to Lopetegui’s blunders lie.
On Thursday, May 31, he and all of his Spain squad (except the Madrid players who’d just won the Champions League for the third straight year) gathered together at Las Rozas, about 30 minutes’ drive outside the Spanish capital, in preparation for the impending World Cup. When Zinedine Zidane’s hastily arranged news conference for lunchtime that day was broadcast live on radio and television, you can forgive the 52-year-old for not being wholly attentive.

It would have been about then that Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, David De Gea & Co. would have just finished training and been heading for lunch in La Residencia, which is on site at Las Rozas and a five-minute walk from the changing rooms. But if Lopetegui didn’t stop to watch the live transmission of the then-Real Madrid manager, with a glum-faced Perez next to him, renouncing his position and standing down with immediate effect, then he must have read the following day’s media coverage.

This was worldwide viral news for the 24 hours that followed, as the shock set in and it became clear that the club, which had just made history with a hat trick of Champions League victories, was looking for Zizou’s successor. It’s utterly inconceivable that Lopetegui didn’t hear Zidane’s very clear message that while Denmark wasn’t on his mind just yet, there was “something rotten” in the state of Real Madrid.

Zidane, the coach, is forthright, habitually direct on important subjects and persuasive, too. When he pointed out that Madrid’s current squad was desperately in need of change, that they’d failed him in attitude and intensity while being knocked out of the Copa del Rey at home to Leganes and that it was imperative that the players respond to new disciplines and ideas, it was a crystal clear message about what was wrong there and then, as well as a hint at the depth of problems that lay ahead.

Didn’t Lopetegui understand the crucial information that Zidane, brutally to the point, was underlining?

As a manager/coach himself, didn’t he wonder, “would I have quit in those circumstances?”

Was he completely tone deaf to the message that the French coach, who could have stayed on for a decade or more, given his success and friendship with Perez, believed Real Madrid’s President had become part of the problem and not the solution?

At any rate, if Lopetegui the Spain manager was utterly disinterested in domestic matters and the story of the year when “Zizou” quit — something that I completely refuse to believe — he’d have been exposed to the water-cooler chit-chat and gossip over the coming days — no question about it. Perhaps he thought it might not directly concern him, but that merely leads to his second crucial failure: the failure to calculate.

When, in mid-June, Maxi Allegri and Mauricio Pochettino had both been approached for the Madrid job but either turned it down (in the former’s case) or proved impossible to pry free from current employers (as was the case with the latter), and it emerged that Joachim Low was wholly committed to retaining the World Cup, it was time for Lopetegui to calculate. That is something he utterly failed to do.

If you are going to begin work as the third- or fourth-choice option for one of the world’s biggest clubs, you need to be aware that you’re pushing a very large boulder up a steep hill. Alone. Lopetegui’s calculation should have begun with going back to Zidane’s words — heck, he should have gotten in touch with the Frenchman for advice and started to work out whether he fancied the risk of taking over a Real Madrid the previous incumbent had announced was fatally flawed.

His calculation needed to continue with an idea about who was in the power seat: Was it Florentino Perez, or would it be him?

As the last remaining credible candidate, Lopetegui was actually in strong position to assert that while he’d take the job in mid-July, he wouldn’t tolerate any public announcement or speculation about him being the man for the job until Spain’s campaign in Russia was well and truly over. This was a time to calculate the best way to begin with force, to not only show the new employer “who was boss” but also protect his current employment with a Spanish Federation headed by a guy, Luis Rubiales, who’d already proven that he loved to dispatch with the ancien regime.
Lopetegui could also have calculated that Perez, according to Zidane’s warning, looked likely to be entering a spell of a few coaches coming and going over the next two years. If he, Lopetegui, held the Madrid president at bay, then the likelihood of his perceived value and attractiveness increasing and getting him the job in a season or two, once the squad was rejuvenated and the Zidane aura had died down, was fairly high.

Decrease the supply, and increase the demand. It’s a basic market law. Lopetegui did none of those things, or he did them very badly.

He began with Perez bulldozing through his announcement as new Real Madrid manager. He began by miscalculating how Rubiales would react to that. He began by being sent home from Krasnodar during what he called the saddest day of his life and one that left him looking like a lame duck who could neither control his new employer nor predict or persuade his old one.

Players notice this. Believe me, they do.

By ignoring the Zidane diagnosis and not having the power over Real Madrid’s president to enforce squad changes or challenge sacred cow players such as Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema, Raphael Varane and Luka Modric, Lopetegui unwittingly bound himself to the form and attitude of a group of footballers who were about to start the new season with their heads still in “holiday” mode.

Lopetegui had to calculate that if Rafa Benitez, a coach with significant European success, had been brutally dismissed mid-term and if this group of players had significantly refused to react positively to Benitez’s coaching, then the odds were stacked against him from the start. After all, Lopetegui had less experience at a big club under his belt, a less impressive résumé, fewer “friends” in the media and fewer trophies to boast of. He could have figured out that he was being handed what Zidane might as well have called a “poisoned chalice.”
Once in the job, Lopetegui’s minor mistakes — dilly-dallying over which keeper was going to be his No. 1 choice, ignoring the general feeling among Madrid’s senior players that Keylor Navas was and should remain the Alpha male, decreasing shooting practice in training, failing to enforce the kind of pressing play he holds as a keystone for his brand of football — outnumbered his gross errors.

The major “biggie” was failing to get under the skin of this talented but idiosyncratic squad. They reacted instantly to Zidane and won him a raft of trophies, but he saw through them. This squad’s personality has a taste for champagne moments and a penchant for knock-out football, yet these players also have a disdain for bread-and-butter matches. Not only did Lopetegui fail to alter that, though his time in charge was brutally short, but also he left his team looking disorganised.

That was particularly true of the defeat at Alaves. Defeat in added time to the simplest of back-post corners made it look, to Perez, that either Madrid’s players were not being coached in sufficient detail or, just as bad, they weren’t paying attention and stopped caring about the consequences of lazy attention to the working day. That game caused massive damage to the Lopetegui brand.

Losing to Atletico Madrid in Europe for the first time in a competitive final wasn’t a good calling card with which to begin the Lopetegui reign either, not when your president wants both Atleti and Barcelona’s noses rubbed in the dirt.

The irony remains that those first 79 minutes in Tallin against Diego Simeone’s Rojiblancos remain the best football, the most confident passing and most dynamic team play of Lopetegui’s short time in charge. It says something when your best game, pound for pound, is a defeat against a historic rival, doesn’t it?
“The Art of War” by Sun Tzu is often quoted in modern sport. Some take it as a template for how to cope with ultra-competition. Perhaps its most famous phrase is: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.”

Lopetegui’s greatest flaw and most important mistake was that not only did he not know his enemy, but he also failed to realise that his enemies were not the other Liga teams but his president and his own players. He didn’t recognise that a restless guy such as Perez would, after not very long, be quite unafraid of sacking a guy who’d given up the chance to coach Spain to a world title. That’s an enemy to be prepared for, joust with, keep either ultra-close or determinedly at bay.

Lopetegui didn’t recognise that some of his footballers are, simply, in a gentle hibernation, having been through the fire and fury of three European Cup victories and a Liga title plus a World Cup in very short succession. The enemy within: rust, relaxation, resting on laurels.
If Lopetegui thought he could casually disregard Zidane’s pessimistic counsel while being the one to “tame” Perez, inject hunger and fight into a somnambulant squad and persuade the world that it was everyone else, not he, who was out of step with regard to the attitude and intensity of his squad, then he failed to “know” himself or his various enemies.

All of which explains why, as you read this, he’s richer financially via his pay-off but poorer in human faith, curriculum vitae, reputation and pride.

Given Zidane’s diagnosis in May, this might well have been an unwinnable fight for Lopetegui, but he made it worse for himself by fighting all his battles the wrong way, against enemies he misread and without the fundamental basis of self-awareness.

In other words, he was doomed to fail.
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