Santiago Solari has about 3 weeks to fix Real Madrid, or it's goodbye Solari and hello ... Conte or Wenger?
It's time to look forward. A whole two weeks forward, in fact, because that is how long Santiago Solari, who was appointed interim coach of Real Madrid on Tuesday, can hold the title of interim boss according to Spanish Football Association rules.
Let's be more precise. It's actually three-and-a-half weeks since there's an international break coming and Real Madrid's next game won't be until Nov. 24, away to Eibar. That's 25 days to either appoint Solari on a permanent basis or find someone else.
Those of us who had the privilege of following Solari's career as a midfielder, and later working with him, know he's an intelligent and charismatic man who won silverware as a player in Spain, Italy and Argentina, including two La Liga titles with Real Madrid (2000-01, 2002-03) and three Serie A crowns with Inter (2005-06, 2006-07, 2007-08). He also had stints with River Plate, Atletico Madrid and played for the Argentina national team from 1999 to 2004. Solari would be the first to say that he wasn't a top-shelf superstar, but he played alongside some of the greatest players in the world, which could make him the ideal Galactico whisperer.
What we don't know is whether he can manage since his résumé is as thin as you'd expect for a guy who turned 42 this month. At Real Madrid, he spent three years working at youth level (2013-16) and then a little over two seasons at the club's B-side, Real Madrid Castilla. Viewed from afar, those positions tell you little or nothing since they are primarily development jobs where you look to form footballers rather than get results.
What we can say with some certainty is that Real Madrid will give themselves those three-and-a-half weeks to find a permanent successor. If they can't find one to their liking -- or if Solari does enough in upcoming matches against the combined might of third-tier Melilla, Valladolid (where his old teammate Ronaldo, the Brazilian one, is an owner), Viktoria Plzen and Celta Vigo to impress Real Madrid president Florentino Perez enough -- the gig will be his. In the meantime, we'll have three weeks of agents and intermediaries, speculation and suggestion, leaks and counterleaks, spin and counterspin. Which, come to think of it, follows the pattern of events in the past week or so.
Witness the fact that, within an hour of the final whistle of Real Madrid's embarrassing 5-1 Clasico defeat, several Spanish outlets were reporting that Julen Lopetegui would be sacked the next day and former Chelsea and Juventus boss Antonio Conte announced as his successor.
News moves fast and you need to keep up with it, but here's the curious thing -- Conte was in Egypt, on holiday. As we now know, Real Madrid did sound him out late last week, albeit in the most circuitous, indirect way. His agent and brother, Daniele, was not contacted directly until the weekend.
The whole approach made Conte uneasy. Did they really think they could call him and he'd agree without any semblance of negotiation? Sure, the Real Madrid job is one of the most coveted in football. But Conte, who is far more introspective than he is given credit for, had learned from his experiences at Juventus and Chelsea, where he won silverware but also fell out badly with some senior players and, crucially, with club officials over transfers.
That said, it's not as if Conte is desperate for a job. After leaving Chelsea, he said he was going on sabbatical. Changing his mind would require a prestigious gig (like Real Madrid) but also assurances over transfers, length of contract and squad composition. Those had to be negotiated. By Monday morning, it became obvious that Conte wasn't going to be appointed that day and the whole affair had the stench of a giant smokescreen designed to avoid a broader Clasico inquest.
Real Madrid's messaging went to another level by the evening with a club statement that Lopetegui was fired. These are usually boilerplate affairs filled with empty platitudes, football's version of "conscious uncoupling." Not this one. Real Madrid made it a point to note that Lopetegui's performance fell short of their expectations despite "a record eight Ballon d'Or nominees" in the squad.
As bad a choice as Lopetegui turned out to be, this statement was mean-spirited and unnecessary. It was also somewhat deceptive. Maybe one day Lopetegui will remind folks that he was actually closer to Barcelona even after the Clasico, seven points, than Zinedine Zidane, who was eight points back at this stage last year. Or that he took over a team that finished 17 points behind Barca. Or that while he and Zidane both had the benefit of eight Ballon d'Or nominees, one of his predecessor's eight was a guy named Cristiano Ronaldo, whose No. 7 shirt now belongs to Mariano.
Maybe the club expected the statement to serve as another post-Clasico smokescreen, an invitation to pile on Lopetegui as the source of all the club's ills. Except this time the media didn't bite. Madrid-based sports daily Marca, the most-read newspaper in Spain, reprinted the statement on its front cover, calling it "shameful" while also pointing out that there was not a scintilla of self-criticism by the club for the Clasico debacle.
Lopetegui, by all accounts, was happy with the squad, believing he could replicate the possession game he employed to such great effect with Spain (and, of course, it was those performances that got him the gig in the first place). He was dead wrong, of course, but that doesn't change the fact that this squad was built and planned -- to the degree that it was in fact planned, which is debatable -- for him.
The names of the candidates being thrown around sound like what you'd get at a very basic brainstorming session.
So who could replace Lopetegui? Let's handicap the field.
Conte is still in the mix, though there's a relationship to rebuild there and he's been depicted in Spain like some demented bogeyman who relishes upsetting his players, not a guy who took a team that finished 10th and comfortably won the Premier League at his first attempt.
There's Arsene Wenger, a blast from the past (he twice turned down Perez) who just turned 69 and might be viable only if you pretend the last decade at Arsenal never happened.
There's Roberto Martinez, who took Belgium to the World Cup semifinal but was sacked with Everton in 12th place in his last club job, which was also his biggest club job.
There's Guti, another alum of the first Galactico Era, but also a guy in his first job in top-flight football -- and that's not even as a coach but rather as an assistant.
There's Mauricio Pochettino, who might make sense, but Real Madrid would have to descend into the nine circles of hell to negotiate with (in)famously shrewd Tottenham boss Daniel Levy. Let's also not forget that Pochettino is a few months into a new five-year deal.
And yes, there's also a school of thought suggesting that Jose Mourinho is the right man to take them forward. Notwithstanding the fact that there are some at Old Trafford who would happily gift-wrap and hand deliver him to the Bernabeu, you might want to revisit the 2012-13 Real Madrid season before you go down that road.
With options like these -- and with managers who are fully aware of Real Madrid's muddled thinking and the way the club behaved toward Lopetegui -- perhaps the best thing to do is sit tight and let Solari handle things between now and May, by which time, you presume, there will be more desirable options.