Mitigating circumstances unlikely to shield Lopetegui from Real Madrid shortcomings

Given Julen Lopetegui was hardly the first pick of any Real Madrid fan to replace Zinedine Zidane when he sensationally quit the club last May, it’s not surprising that at the first sign of trouble, many already want him out.

But while there are mitigating circumstances, Saturday’s defeat to little Alaves, making it four games without a win or a goal, hasn’t helped his cause.

The controversial decision to appoint the 52-year-old just as he was about to lead Spain into the World Cup in Russia was very much out of left field and not something that was expected by the various sports betting betting agencies.

Yes, he guided senior international side comfortably through qualification, but given the playing resources available to him, that was the least anyone would have expected.

Deeper examination of his CV yields few clues as to why Real were so keen to acquire his services. His best work was with Spain’s under age set up – winning the U19 and U21 European Championships in 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Success that surely informed the Spanish Football Federations’ decision to appoint him as senior manager two years ago.

And it must surely have been that, given that his work at club level would’ve done little to recommend him. His biggest job had come with Porto, who appointed him as boss in May 2014.

But his dispiriting time in Portugal ended with the sack in January 2016, after a trophy-less 20 months in charge.

But its better to be born lucky than rich, some say. How else to explain the dream opportunity afforded Lopetegui by the Real Madrid hierarchy – one that reduced him to tears at his unveiling?

To be fair to the new man, though, things had been going pretty well up until a couple of weeks ago. Los Blancos had won four of their first five La Liga matches and thumped Roma 3-0 in impressive fashion in the Champions League.

Lopetegui had been looking to create a more cohesive and aggressive playing style. His Real hold a higher defensive line than before and are required to press more energetically in the opposition half.

His front three are given the freedom to rotate as they see fit, but in return, they must adopt a more defensive aspect when possession is lost.

And interestingly Lopetegui had given Isco, whom he worked with at under age level and with the senior international side, a much more pivotal role. The former Malaga man had been given a free role in midfield, tasked with providing the cutting edge to a more possession-based team.

But then the slump of the last fortnight – humbled 3-0 at Sevilla, held to a disappointing goal-less draw by neighbours Atletico, and then suffering shock European and domestic reverses at CSKA Moscow and Alaves.

The high line and press that looked promising in the earlier outings, and especially in the win over Roma, has been too easily bypassed since, as Real have repeatedly lost their shape and their bearings.

And the goals have dried up – 15 were scored in their first six domestic and European games, then none in the following four. It’s probably unsurprising that the recent poor run of form has coincided with Isco being sidelined with appendicitis.

So, cue the sound of knives sharpening.

Plenty of people are happy to use the results as evidence that Lopetegui is out of his depth. But heaping all the blame on the new man would be unfair.

For Lopetegui has inherited a Real side that has lost, and has done little to replace, Cristiano Ronaldo.

He has inherited a side that despite its European heroics last season lacked the stomach and consistency to defend their La Liga title – finishing a distant 17 points behind champions Barcelona.

Moreover, plans to refurbish the Bernabeu seem to have tempered his transfer budget, while squad depth has been slowly eroded at the club season on season.

This is the lense through which the early days of his tenure should be viewed.

But this is Real Madrid. And however valid, such mitigating circumstances can only shield Lopetegui for so long.

He needs to turn things round and quick – before a tenure that began with tears only a few months ago, ends with more in the near future.

The Author

Paul Little

Freelance football columnist. European Football with the Irish Daily Star. Hold the Back Page podcast regular. Family and Renaissance Man. Dublin born, Wicklow resident.

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