In another dimension somewhere, Julen Lopetegui is still basking in the warm glow of Spain’s World Cup triumph. In this other reality, he watched Sunday’s Clásico from the director’s box at Camp Nou. From there he couldn’t help noticing Florentino Perez’s glances in his direction a few rows down.
As Real Madrid struggled and ultimately lost 2-0 to the Catalans, it was clear that Perez was having doubts about whether he should have trusted Santiago Solari so soon with the role of manager. If only, Perez thought, he had a World Cup Winner like Lopetegui in charge.
With a man of that stature managing these players, things would almost certainly be different.
In our dimension, however, football remains a particularly cruel game. And it’s been a vicious few months for Lopetegui. The Basque coach – who has essentially become a meme for how making one bad decision can affect your life in such a short period of time – is due to be sacked today as Real Madrid manager.
But here’s the thing. And I know this is slightly controversial, so bear with me. How much of Real Madrid’s failure is actually down to Lopetegui?
After all, Madrid’s start to the La Liga season last year wasn’t great, either. Though they didn’t collapse quite so spectacularly as they have done in recent weeks under Lopetegui, they were pretty much out of the title race by Christmas.
The thing is, of course, last season Real Madrid won the Champions League. Again. And as we know, winning the Champions League is the best form of papering over cracks that exists in football.
However, it’s almost as if the Madrid players are now stuck in a setting that has brought them so much European success in recent years. That is, not getting out of first gear until March or April when the Champions League enters its decisive stage.
Whether it’s subconscious or not, the players in recent years appear to have been sleepwalking through the league campaign in order to conserve the necessary energy to win the big prize in May.
And the tactic has worked, hasn’t it? Indeed, writing a critical piece about a strategy that has landed the team three Champions League trophies in a row seems a little odd. But my point is that what has happened in recent weeks under Lopetegui isn’t necessarily anything new.
Rather, Madrid’s performances have been a continuation of what we’ve seen in recent seasons. Just with one key difference. That’s right, he isn’t there anymore. With Ronaldo in your team, you can get away with playing in first gear against most teams. CR7 will step up and make the difference. Add a bit of quality at just the right time.
But Ronaldo has gone. And he’s taken his 50 goals with him. Guiilem Ballague spoke yesterday of how Lopetegui wanted a striker in the summer. He knew that those goals were going to be missed. But Perez didn’t provide. He’s saving his money for Neymar.
And on the Spanish El Larguero radio show, analysts have spoken recently about why Zidane left. According to sources, the Frenchman knew that the team needed to be replenished. And maybe Zidane also knew that a method that he himself had encouraged – to time the team’s rise to form to coincide with the latter stages of the Champions League – simply wasn’t sustainable. He’d made it work for three seasons, but he knew that it would be tricky in the extreme to repeat it again. Especially without Ronaldo’s goals.
The Madrid players, however, appear to still be singing from that old hymn sheet. An argument can be made that they’re simply stuck in the same routine. Perhaps Lopetegui has attempted to change it, but it’s too entrenched.
If it is to be Antonio Conte to replace Lopetegui in the coming days, his main objective will surely be to attempt to reset this default setting that Madrid’s players are stuck in. He needs to convince them to step up a gear and to care a bit more about the league right now, instead of conserving their energy for matches six months from now.