Julen Lopetegui may have emerged out of nowhere to be named the new manager of Real Madrid but it is an appointment that makes a great deal of sense from the Bernabeu’s point of view.
Real’s search for a successor to Zinedine Zidane had taken on an increasingly desperate air before the announcement on Tuesday. Andre Villas-Boas, last seen at the Dakar Rally, was the most recent to be linked.
The Spanish Football Federation were not amused by Real’s timing and sacked Lopetegui on Wednesday, hours before the World Cup. But Florentino Perez is scarcely renowned for subtlety. On this occasion though, and assuming the previous list of managerial desperados was carefully leaked to the media, the Real president has pulled off a genuine coup, however unsavoury the circumstances.
Lopetegui is familiar with the club, served as a player (albeit conceding three against Atletico Madrid in his one senior appearance), coached Castilla and has spent hundreds of hours on the training pitch with Madrid’s Spain internationals. He can also now start his new job as soon as he returns from Russia, which may or may not have been the intention behind Real’s statement on Tuesday but has worked in their favour nonetheless. Perez even avoided having to pay Lopetegui’s €2 million compensation clause as he was sacked before signing his Bernabeu contract. Real Madrid 1, Spain 0.
Good business off the pitch and — on paper at least — a logical and progressive appointment on it. Lopetegui is a builder of teams more than a writer of cheques and can oversee a transitional period for the club.
However, he will arrive under something of a cloud and Real will pray he proves to be a Vicente del Bosque in reverse. Since the successful reign of the former Spain coach between 1999 and 2003, five Spanish managers have passed through the Bernabeu: Jose Antonio Camacho, Mariano Garcia Remon, Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, Juande Ramos and Rafa Benitez. None lasted longer than seven months.
On the face of it, Lopetegui should stay the course. But the new Madrid boss will have a hefty in-tray when he settles into Zidane’s chair.
Despite what the Spanish sports dailies are peddling, Cristiano Ronaldo is not top of that pile. The Portuguese is an institutional matter, not a sporting one (although the same media is making a meal of Lopetegui stating his preference for Lionel Messi over the Portuguese in a not-so-recent television interview). The new Real boss is hardly going to March in and inform Perez that Ronaldo has to go and nobody in reality is going to stump up north of €200m for a 33-year-old, or at least nobody in Europe. Ronaldo will stay and Ronaldo will play. Lopetegui can three-pointer that post-it note to the far side of his office.
Karim Benzema is another matter entirely. Lopetegui has shown he possesses a ruthless streak by dumping Alvaro Morata before the World Cup and he may have similar plans for the former France striker. Zidane protected Benzema’s scoring stats to the point of parody and while it is undeniable that Ronaldo’s performances are enhanced by his long-time partner’s presence, Lopetegui may feel that the Portuguese would be better served by a different model: Isco is about to get a status upgrade.
A Lopetegui favourite from his under-21 days, the midfielder has been enjoying a regular starting berth for his country, something he has never quite been assured at the Bernabeu. That is about to change. Lopetegui used Isco on the left and right of a front three — from where he destroyed Argentina in a 6-1 win in March — or behind a striker in a 4-2-3-1.
Lopetegui may decide that Ronaldo can be definitively shifted to the centre, where he spends half his time anyway, leaving Benzema as a spare wheel. Ronaldo will have to accept an eventual succession process in favour of Marco Asensio on the left and that is likely to accelerate under the new coach.
Gareth Bale is yet to commit his future to the club and wants an assurance he will play every week. The number of minutes Lucas Vazquez gets on Spain’s right wing under Fernando Hierro may give him some indication; Spain’s coach may have changed for the World Cup but Lopetegui’s plans will remain largely in place. In any case, Perez may already have decided to cash in on the 29-year-old despite his Champions League heroics, in order to pursue an old flame.
David De Gea was Lopetegui’s No.1 and Madrid could reignite their interest in the Manchester United keeper this summer. Keylor Navas may require another World Cup 2014 masterclass — and a couple of De Gea howlers — to put that never-ending story to bed.
Lopetegui’s first task will be to sort the wheat from the chaff in terms of last summer’s signings. A coach with a history of bringing the best out of talented youngsters will already be familiar with many of them. The job of deciding who stays and who goes is one that Lopetegui may have considered during idle moments in Russia but after an extraordinary 24 hours, the new Real Madrid manager can move it to the top of his to-do list.
Rob Train covers Real Madrid and the Spanish national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Cafc13Rob.