Real Madrid adjusting nicely to Julen Lopetegui in early going
How do you alter expectations when your motto is to "win, win, win, come back and win again"?
Real Madrid are notoriously unbending in their ambition to win trophies, but after the exit by Cristiano Ronaldo this summer, there might be a little more leeway than usual. Julen Lopetegui communicates in "Real speak" now. "It's not about having more possession," he says. "It's about winning." He is proving to be an idealistic manager with enough sway to convince his troops to follow his lead and a vision of how he wants to play that will hold him in good stead when the pressure comes.
The two responses to Real Madrid's last two managerial appointments could hardly have been any different. When Zinedine Zidane was named as Rafa Benitez's replacement, it was "Wow!" When Julen Lopetegui was named as Real Madrid's new manager, the general response outside of Spain was "who?"
Slowly, though, Lopetegui is proving he is neither a yes man nor a rebound manager after years of success under Zinedine Zidane. From reports that he has a "spy in the stands" (as Spanish newspaper Diario As put it) to his agility in the press room and his ability to say the right things, Lopetegui is showing himself to be a man with a plan and with the ability to execute it despite the noise that typically surrounds his new club.
For a start, he sees winning without Ronaldo as something to get excited about. "It's an exciting challenge reinventing the team without Ronaldo, making it competitive and capable of winning titles," he said during the preseason tour of the United States.
The signs were there with Spain when they were considered one of the favourites for the World Cup before he was unceremoniously sacked by the Spanish football federation for agreeing to terms with Real Madrid days before the competition kicked off in Russia. The zenith of his spell as the manager of his country came with a 6-1 win over Argentina at the Wanda Metropolitano. The destruction was so complete that Spain looked like they could score at will.
In just a few months in charge, Lopetegui has stamped his authority in the squad. That was evident after the Girona game when he withdrew Marcelo, a player who carries significant clout in the dressing room, for struggling defensively. "It surprised me," he said. "But I respect the manager's decision." Marcelo responded by training fully with Sunday night's subs to ensure the same wouldn't happen again.
Likewise, Gareth Bale, who is chasing the unlikely target of goals that Ronaldo set annually during his time in Spain, said: "I want to take penalties, but the manager decides and I respect his decision." The gentle but robust hand of Lopetegui is moulding this squad into the style and shape he wants.
Karim Benzema has earned protagonist status at Real Madrid, and while it is unclear as to what Lopetegui has pushed for and what he's settled for in private meetings with Florentino Perez, he is publicly backing this group of players. More than backing the players, however, he is backing himself to figure out a way of improving this squad despite being stripped of their best asset in the summer.
Some of the big decisions he has taken include leaving Thibaut Courtois on the bench for the opening three fixtures despite his high-profile move from Chelsea after the World Cup. In years gone by, after Perez has spent money on a player you would be more than likely to see them feature early and often at the Bernabeu; style and logic would often take a back seat in order to crowbar such players in. The racket for Vinicius Junior to play has been getting louder ever since his preseason tour, too, when he impressed in the United States. Lopetegui, however, has said that Vinicius Junior "needs more cooking time" and he refuses to bow to pressure to play the 18-year-old phenom.
"He is a first-team player," says Emilio Butragueno, the director of institutional directions. "Julen will be deciding in that respect. We don't get involved in managerial decision."
This could all come crashing down around Lopetegui with all the more blame to be placed on his lap if he does fail to win over the critics at Real Madrid and lift a trophy in his first year at the club. But if he's going down, he'll be doing it on his terms, and if he wins, it will be because of him too.
An early report from Real Madrid's camp suggested Lopetegui was seen as just another Rafa Benitez, who lasted just 25 games before being sacked. There is, however, a stronger sense of connection between the new manager and his players, not to mention their willingness to fight for his affection.
What we don't know is how Lopetegui will manage when the pressure arrives, which it inevitably will and is something that separated Zidane from his predecessors. Lopetegui said he loves the players and squad he has, and they're learning to play under his very specific style. The fans might be coming around to his way of thinking too.