Sacking Julen Lopetegui won't save Real Madrid from rot stemming from squad in decline
I was one of those in Krasnodar, Russia, who lived through the 24 hours of "What's happening to Julen Lopetegui?" when the Spanish FA president decided whether to back or sack La Roja's coach last June.
Now, four months later, here we are again. Chaos reigns, short-term criteria will dominate over either mid- or long-term planning, egos are to the fore and Lopetegui must be very unsure indeed whether he's got several hours or several days to alter his fate at Real Madrid.
Back in Krasnodar the wrong decision was taken.
I say that not to justify my published opinion on the day that there was good reason for a settlement, however tense, to be reached and for Lopetegui to stay in charge of Spain. I say that because the Spain squad players -- those of Barcelona above all -- whom he might have aggravated by agreeing to join Madrid when his tournament was over would either have had to suck it up or speak out against him: neither of which would have been as damaging as the end result. I say that because it's nearly impossible to imagine that a squad capable of winning that World Cup, a squad that in no way was significantly inferior to either of the tournament finalists, would have performed with less intensity, less risk or more insipidly if Lopetegui had been maintained.
Is there a lesson to be learned by Florentino Perez, not from the precise circumstances but from the decision and its ramifications, as he surveys Madrid's admittedly awful results and considers whether to promote Santi Solari from Los Blancos' youth system? I think so, but it's based more on my point two weeks ago about there being endemic problems that even a successful change of coach would paper over rather than solve.
Madrid still have a first XI that, when fit and on form, could beat any team in the world; one that, fit and on form, could still win this wide-open Spanish title.
But the guy we now need to refer to as "Doctor Zidane" warned everyone who'd listen that the patient was only outwardly healthy. Zinedine Zidane, on leaving, pointed out that matches like the one against Leganes, when the cucumber farmers knocked Madrid out of the Spanish Cup at the Bernabeu, troubled him enormously and spoke to him about attitudes. He saw trends in how Madrid played in games that didn't fire their imagination.
Those performances spoke to him, too, about the competitive level of the youthful candidates brought in to augment not only Madrid's squad but the level of competitiveness. That latter point is quite vital.
Some of the key men who are underperforming right now -- Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Karim Benzema -- are 100 percent sure that if fit, then in any important game, they will start. Automatically. That causes rust. Don't argue, it just does.
Zidane saw that, not unlike the Madrid squad he inherited when Rafa Benitez was sacked, this group of players have a unified personality. They are up for the big nights, up for the big rivalries, capable of producing immense character, but jaded when it came to the slog. They were jaded when it came to the hard, boring midseason training routines via which you can either keep yourself ticking over mentally or mimic what people like Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez -- and before them Carles Puyol, Xavi and Andres Iniesta -- have done.
And what those Barca greats have done is remain really, truly remorselessly mean, hungry and unwilling to settle. Although Barcelona's football is in decline, their character has been maintained almost from the day Pep Guardiola stepped in the door in 2008. There have been blips, sure, but brief -- and usually self-cured, which is why they so utterly dominate the current scene in terms of La Liga titles.
Whether your sentiments side with Los Blancos or the Blaugrana or you're a neutral, the litmus test of having remained mean and hungry enough against the blue-collar teams in La Liga, when ennui and "seen this, done that" can set in like a sleeping sickness, is winning La Liga. Barcelona have managed to find this within themselves time and time again.
Madrid's consecutive Champions Leagues, to anyone who knows their stuff, are a unique achievement, one that deserves admiration and, to some extent, reverence. But Zidane himself warned that the combination of his players already lacking the toughness to compete and win the title repeatedly, and the physical tiredness in a team that for three years has played end-to-end football, added to an inevitable, subconscious relaxation caused by immense European success spelled either trouble or disaster.
His prognosis is en route to coming true, yet -- it's Lopetegui's fault?
I remember the first thing that the most cynical hacks, with the most years under their belt, said in Krasnodar when Lopetegui was announced as Madrid coach. The phrase, time after time, was "out by Christmas." The cynics didn't think that he'd have the political nous, the impact on the squad or the imperial bearing (like Zidane, Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Vicente del Bosque) to cope with the vipers' nest that a troubled Real Madrid becomes.
"Out by Christmas," in June, felt mean-spirited, cynical, know-it-all -- and wholly feasible. Here we are, at the time of writing, with Lopetegui still in his post but with someone at the Bernabeu patently using Madrid media contacts to, as they say, "fly a kite." The expression means that Solari's name can be floated, reaction can be gauged and then a decision made.
The fact that after Madrid's accident-prone defeat at home to Levante, Atletico only drew, Sevilla lost and Messi injured himself for likely the next month, must have been data that was crunched into Perez's decision-making machine. The concept of Lopetegui being sacked pre-Clasico would have been made more likely had Atleti won handsomely at Villarreal and Barcelona spanked Sevilla with a Messi hat trick.
Florentino, naturally, fears the idea of Madrid slipping irrevocably out of the title race by midwinter. That's clearly not where we are right now. But when he assesses the decision on whether to prioritise the fact that Madrid have serious issues to address and let Lopetegui get one with it, or play to the gallery and sack a "failing coach," the evidence of what other important rivals are doing comes into the equation.
What obviously remains true is that Madrid, right now, are suffering from several star players being out of form. They're underperforming, whether it's because of subconscious relaxation, self indulgence, physical problems or because they are seeking match fitness having been out injured.
There's no real way to justify the utterly atrocious level of organisation, attention and judgment involved in the Alaves winner two weeks ago. Ramos, Varane, Nacho and Thibaut Courtois combined to allow the Alaves' set play routine they'd practiced (deep corner, back-post header, attacking second header from the penalty spot) to look like some kind of Einstein work. It wasn't. It was routine.
The lack of pressing on Sergio Postigo when his long pass found Jose Luis Morales for 0-1 on Saturday and Varane's "I'm only here in body, not spirit" reaction to that or the penalty he then gave away, well, that speaks badly either of Lopetegui's impact on his squad -- or his squad's mental state.
That said, in recent matches Madrid have created umpteen chances to score while playing poorly, have hit the woodwork at an almost unprecedented rate and been the "victims" of (correct) VAR decisions, the absence of which in the past would have spared them such embarrassment. And some key players -- Isco, Marcelo, Gareth Bale -- are returning to match sharpness at a time that can edge Madrid to the kind of scrappy wins that push a crisis away and build both form and confidence.
Perhaps Lopetegui will be the beneficiary of those factors -- probably not. As I've noted here before, his has been a career in football blighted by such calamities, given that he had playing talent and obviously has coaching ability, that they'd make you believe he's jinxed.
Perez has a record of sacking, appointing midseason and having that "transient" coach (Del Bosque, Zidane) lead a previously sinking Madrid to both Liga and Champions League titles. If that has happened once, let alone twice, there's an obvious human temptation that the Madrid president reaches for the remedy again.
But even if Solari relieves Lopetegui of his post, inherits a team whose fitness and attitude is suddenly on the rise and seems to turn the downward spiral around so that he looks like a fix-all guru, he won't necessarily be. Madrid have problems that their lack of a director of football, lack of a well-thought out, modern football bible to which they can revert in times of trouble, have caused and will continue to cause until Perez updates and adds specialised expertise to the "football thinking" that governs the football department's mid- and long-term planning.
It's that simple.