After being courted by Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2016, Julen Lopetegui was handed the reins of a superbly talented Spain side, taking over from World Cup winner Vicente del Bosque, who retired.
The national outfit needed modernising, the old faces had to be slowly phased out and the famous tiki-taka style of play, which had almost become a less-effective parody of itself, was to be tweaked to provide more cut and thrust.
Lopetegui did just that and Spain qualified for the 2018 World Cup by winning nine and drawing one of their group qualification games. They headed into the competition as one of the favourites and possessed one of, if not the best, squads in Russia – then the bombshell hit.
Reports emerged that Lopetegui would take over the vacant Real Madrid job, signing a three-year-deal despite the World Cup only one day away. He was soon dismissed before Las Rojas first game, with Fernando Hierro replacing him. The tumultuous few months hasn’t affected Spain’s odds for the UEFA Nations League, however, where they sit as 3/1 second-favourites in the international football betting. So, has Julien made the right decision?
Now, just a few months into his tenure at the Santiago Bernabeau, he is under terrific pressure as results take a slide from the Spanish capital side’s triumphant end to last term.
Despite playing for both Real Madrid and Barcelona, his dismissal could please some sections of both fanbases. Many Madridistas already feel his time is up and are still sore over the way Lopetegui ditched the national team so publicly, scuppering their very real chances of lifting the famous golden trophy.
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In Catalonia, his sacking would be met with hilarity – not only did his move to Real end Spain’s opportunity to win the World Cup but, now, the club he left for get set for another managerial search.
Was Real such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity he couldn’t turn down, even if it meant giving up his only chance to manage the national side? In the cold light of day, no.
You can understand why he took the job, but his lack of foresight got him sacked from the national side, a true one-off long-term job. The Real job opens up regularly, but the draw the world’s biggest club has is immense and takes a special sort of character to turn down.
Taking over after Zinedine Zidane is perhaps the only poisoned chalice to match that of David Moyes being appointed Manchester United manager after Sir Alex Ferguson – walking in the footsteps of an immensely successful manager.
Zidane was Real through and through, a legend of the club that commanded instant respect throughout the dressing room, while Lopetegui played only once in the league for Los Blancos.
The summer saw the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, who won four Champions League titles in Madrid, but Florentino Perez failed to fill the void left by the superstar. Instead, Madrid entered the season with more or less the same squad, but also maintained the level of expectation – a recipe for disaster.
One thing going for Lopetegui is support within the squad from the Spanish players, thanks to being popular with them during his two years as national team boss. However, if this slump in form continues and dissent within the squad flares up, expect Lopetegui to be gone before Christmas, destined to fail since the very start.