Lopetegui a dead man walking as Real problems mount
Perez ready to wield the axe on manager as Madrid struggle in the wake of Ronaldo’s exit
Julen Lopetegui: Real Madrid’s coach has effectively been operating with one hand tied behind his back as the club’s crisis intensifies. Photograph: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images
The billionaire president of Real Madrid knows his own mind.
Florentino Pérez trained as a civil engineer, but not just as any old civil engineer.
He studied as part of the elite corps groomed to build Spain’s highways, bridges and ports in the 1960s. This was during General Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship in the country. Only those who were made of the right stuff were chosen. They had buckets of intelligence and confidence.
Today, Pérez heads up ACS Group, one of the world’s largest construction corporations. He moonlights as president of Real Madrid.
When he looks at the world of football, he reckons a man with his breeding as a crack civil engineer would make a better fist at football coaching than the men who have trained Real Madrid’s first team since he first took charge of the club in 2000. It’s why he runs the club without a director of football, unlike most other top European football clubs.
Pérez treats his coaches with disdain. When Manuel Pellegrini arrived to coach Real Madrid – having performed heroics at Villarreal and burnishing an impressive CV – in the summer of 2009, Pérez never spoke to him beyond the August of his sole season in charge.
He once discarded seven coaches in a three-year stretch. The latest man in his crosshairs is Julen Lopetegui.
Lopetegui took over the job in extraordinary circumstances. He was fired from his position as Spain’s manager on the eve of the World Cup in Russia because he’d negotiated to take over as Real Madrid coach once the tournament had concluded, allegedly behind the back of the Royal Spanish Football Association.
It seems Lopetegui made a rash decision. He had a game chance at leading Spain – who were unbeaten in his 20 games at the helm – to a World Cup title, but he had become dazzled by the big lights at Real Madrid.
The sad thing is that Lopetegui was always on a hiding to nothing. He was at least fifth down the list of men Pérez phoned to take on the job Zinedine Zidane had just vacated.
Zidane surprised everyone by leaving, including Pérez who looked morose at the Frenchman’s press conference called to announce his departure. There was nowhere left for Zidane to take the club. He had just won a third Champions League title on the bounce, and he didn’t have the stomach to rebuild a squad sated from years of success.
It has notable that Zidane chose to leave a few days after a planning session for the ensuing season. The decision to hunt for a new goalkeeper, for example, had irked Zidane who scuppered a move to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga – subsequently signed by Chelsea in the summer for a world record transfer fee for a goalkeeper – during the previous winter transfer window.
Zidane had faith in the unglamorous Keylor Navas, but Pérez was adamant, and got his wish by signing Thibaut Courtois after the Belgian’s starring role at the World Cup.
Juggling the Courtois-Navas situation – which Lopetegui has solved by playing Courtois in the league and Navas in Europe – is one of several headaches he inherited.
The big one, of course, was the loss to Juventus of Cristiano Ronaldo – who always endured a frosty relationship with Pérez because the president’s predecessor, Ramón Calderón, had signed the Portugal star.
Pérez even tried to scotch the move from Manchester United, which had been deferred until the end of the 2008-2009 season, but was talked out of it by his then adviser, Jorge Valdano.
How do you replace a man who scored an average of 50 goals a season for nine seasons? It’s an all but impossible task. Pérez fudged it. Instead of signing one of Europe’s top-class strikers like, say, Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi, Pérez penny -pinched and bought back Mariano to the club, a former Real Madrid academy striker who only has one full season playing at the top – with Lyon in France’s Ligue 1 – under his belt. In four league games for Real Madrid this season, he has yet to score.
Real Madrid’s other goal scorers are also drawing blanks. Karim Benzema has scored one goal since September 1st. The Spanish golden boy, Marco Asensio – who has scored several spectacular goals for the club over the last couple of seasons – has also diminished under the pressure.
There are systemic flaws. Even Ronaldo at this stage last season had only scored one goal – he didn’t get his second until November 2017, and then he scored a glut, including 15 in the successful Champions League campaign.
Last season, despite the triumph in Europe, Real Madrid were dismal domestically, crashing out of Spain’s Copa del Rey following an embarrassing defeat to Leganés at the Bernabéu in January.
In the league, they finished the season 17 points adrift of title winners, Barcelona. It was only Zidane’s prestige as a club legend that kept him in the job long enough to bring home another European Cup.
The club has been haemorrhaging key players, including the defensive rock, Pepe, over the last few seasons, and haven’t signed a galáctico since James Rodríguez (who is out on loan at Bayern Munich) since 2014.
Where once the world’s best players used to flock to the club now they can no longer attract them. Kylian Mbappe, for instance, chose to go to Paris Saint-Germain instead of Real Madrid in the summer of 2017.
The obsession Pérez has in signing Neymar jnr – all the signs are that he will make another move for the Brazilian next year – means he’s salted away the €100 million from the Ronaldo sale to Juventus.
His transfer booty is further reduced because a deal with Cepsa, the company he lined up for a €400 million naming rights fee as part of a Santiago Bernabéu Stadium reconstruction project, fell through last January.
Real Madrid’s fans are incensed that he’s diverted the money for a replacement striker on a retractable roof. Lopetegui has one hand tied behind his back as a result.
Gareth Bale, the man Pérez signed as the heir apparent to Ronaldo’s throne for a world record transfer in 2013, doesn’t have what it takes to fill his shoes.
Alfredo Relaño, the editor of Diario AS and probably the most distinguished football writer in Spain, dismisses Bale as a “hypochondriac”. Bale has been sidelined with over 20 injuries during his five years in Spain. It’s a shame.
Bale has played decisive roles in three of Real Madrid’s recent European Cup wins, including his stupendous bicycle kick against Liverpool last May in Kiev, but apart from his physical frailties he lacks Ronaldo’s force of personality.
Ronaldo – currently facing an alleged rape claim – is more than goals. He’s a leader. He plays with his chest out. He has unbreakable self-belief. Bale – although he assumes a role as the reference point for the Wales national team – has never looked comfortable at the Bernabéu.
Culture plays a part. Bale has struggled to learn the Spanish language, but lack of assimilation isn’t everything. He is after all a foreigner in a dressing room full of international mercenaries. Real Madrid’s hard-core fans, the Ultras Sur, serenade the German Toni Kroos – who doesn’t score spectacular goals like Bale – from the stands. Bale in contrast is regularly whistled at.
Bale has only scored two goals this season in eight games. His stats would improve if he was taking the team’s penalties, but Sergio Ramos has bagged that job for himself.
In a case of the lunatics taking over the asylum, Ramos has even muscled in on the free-taking in some games. It’s symptomatic of Lopetegui’s weak hold on power over the dressing room, whose support (or lack of) is fractured along Spanish and non-Spanish lines.
Real Madrid’s form has been woeful.
Last Saturday, the club lost 2-1 at home to Levante in the league. Centre back Raphael Varane committed a howler in defence to let Levante’s forward, José Luis Morales, steal in for the game’s opening goal. It was Real Madrid’s fourth defeat in five games, which included a 3-0 thumping by Sevilla and the second longest streak without scoring a goal in the club’s history.
A limp 2-1 defeat of the Czech side Viktoria Plzen mid-week has stemmed the bleeding but Lopetegui’s fate looks sealed.
The club has contacted former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte twice in the last couple of weeks, sounding him out.
There are other names in the hat, including the possibility of a sensational return for José Mourinho – who, incidentally, had a toxic relationship with Ramos during his three-year reign at the club – if the Portuguese was able to extricate himself from his predicament at Manchester United.
On the horizon for Lopetegui is a tie with league leaders Barcelona in the clásico tomorrow at the Camp Nou. Barça are without Messi – who fractured an arm during the side’s 4-2 win against Sevilla last weekend – but it looks like the bit of fortune has come too late for Lopetegui.
He has all the signs of a dead man walking.
Richard Fitzpatrick is the author of El Clásico: Barcelona v Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry, which is published by Bloomsbury.
Is La Liga more competitive?
Barcelona sit on top of the league table in Spain. Nothing unusual there – after all, the club has won La Liga seven times in the last decade.
But run your finger down the league table at the other positions and everything has changed. Only three points separate the top six teams. Three of those clubs are surprise contenders – Espanyol, Valladolid (who have been on a roll since the Brazilian Ronaldo bought the club at the start of the season) and the little Basque club Alavés, who were briefly top of the table last weekend before Barça defeated early pace-setters Sevilla 4-2.
There is no place for traditional powers, Real Madrid, Valencia or Athletic Bilbao, who are languishing further down the table.
There are a few factors at play – there is a World Cup hangover where Real Madrid, for example, are suffering with a squad full of fatigued international stars.
The big reason, though, is that a deal has been struck to share the spoils from TV rights more equitably amongst clubs, which is trickling down.
During the summer, Atletico Madrid, for instance, spent more than its bigger city rivals, Real Madrid, on players, outlaying €78 million compared to €12 million by Real Madrid and Atletico also managed to persuade their franchise player, Antoine Griezmann to stay rather than move to Barcelona.