Julen Lopetegui: Road to Redemption
For Julen Lopetegui, the best and worst days of his life came just 24 hours apart. This was by his own admission, following a dramatic chain of events which rocked Spanish football to the core. Ever since that moment, he has been fighting the doubters, determined to prove he can excel at the elite level.
With Spain already on location and preparing for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the RFEF (Spanish Football Federation) sacked Lopetegui after Real Madrid announced he would be their successor to Zinedine Zidane. The next day, he was in Madrid being unveiled. Spain’s campaign was thrown into disarray leading to a last-16 exit, and Lopetegui’s tenure at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu did not last much longer – played 14, won six, lost six – culminating in a 5-1 Clásico humiliation.
Lopetegui’s playing career as a goalkeeper was solid if not spectacular, coming through the ranks in the Basque country before joining Real Madrid Castilla. His senior career included over 100 appearances for both Logroñés and Rayo Vallecano either side of being the understudy to Sergio Busquets’ father, Carles, at Barcelona. He also played once for Real Madrid and was capped by Spain in a friendly against Croatia.
Always a keen student of the game, Lopetegui was always going to turn to coaching when his playing career ended, although it took some time after his initial brief spell at Rayo. While Pep Guardiola was making waves at Barça, Lopetegui was in the third tier with Castilla. Soon, he was appointed to the Spanish youth team setup, enjoying magnificent success. He led the side to the under-19 Euros in 2012 before repeating this glory with the under-21s in 2013, featuring up-and0coming stars such as Isco, Thiago and David de Gea.
Still aged under 50, his first senior European club job was with Portuguese giants Porto. While success wasn’t a common currency, he did take them to the Champions League quarter-finals in 2015, heading to Munich with a 3-1 lead only to be blown away in the second leg by Pep’s Bayern.
Then came the pinnacle, or what should have been: the Spain job, a role he was clearly capable of performing, and a system he knew intimately having helped cultivate it years before. Following on from Vicente del Bosque looked an ominous task, but Lopetegui took to the role like a duck to water. Spain qualified for the 2018 World Cup in free-scoring style, averaging 3.6 goals per game, but the best was surely yet to come. In the March international break, Spain took on Argentina at the Estadio Wanda Metropolitano and obliterated them 6-1, with Thiago and Isco, in particular, stealing the show, both players who Lopetegui had won with before.
Expectations were high for the tournament, with Spain playing an attractive brand of football and crucially a winning one too. In 20 matches in charge, Lopetegui was unbeaten. Then came the saddest day of his life.
Hindsight is never kind, but the situation should never have been allowed to play out the way it did. The timing was terrible, perhaps down to some Machiavellian mischief on the part of Florentino Pérez but there was an equal share of naïve culpability on Lopetegui’s behalf. Almost inevitably, arriving at Los Blancos in the wake of Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo leaving was always going to end in tears. There were signs of the attractive style being implemented – an impressive win over Roma in the Champions League with Isco starring once again – but defeats became common, and the pressure told. Lopetegui had been sacked from the biggest two jobs in Spanish football in the space of four months. How could he come back from this?
Sevilla took a chance on him, and it has been richly rewarded. In his first season, they qualified for the Champions League and won the Europa League in the Covid-19-affected post-season tournament. They saw off strong competition from Wolves, Roma, Manchester United and then Antonio Conte’s Inter Milan in a thrilling final.
Lopetegui was able to instil a solidity and consistency which Sevilla are not normally accustomed to. The partnership of Jules Koundé and Diego Carlos in front of the magnificent Yassine Bono has been the bedrock of their success. Their playing style has had its critics – often conservative, cautious and sometimes stagnant – but few can argue with the results. In his second season, they pushed Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid all the way to the final stretches of the season, and gave Barça a genuine scare in the Copa. Reaching the Champions League knockouts was an achievement, although an inspired Erling Haaland knocked them out.
It is true that Lopetegui has changed his tactical approach, but after the scars of his Madrid experience, who can really blame him? In the current season, they have been the only team capable of keeping any kind of pace with Carlo Ancelotti’s side, albeit injuries and draws are costing them a genuine sustained challenge. In Europe there was a regression, failing to qualify from a Champions League group which looked favourable. However, there is always the Europa League again, with the added incentive of reaching a home final in May.
Despite all the injuries, even in double figures for some games, Sevilla still possess the best defensive record in LaLiga, and have established themselves in the top four. These days, people groan when Sevilla drop points because it seems like a missed opportunity. But it is worth reminding the naysayers of where the club was when Lopetegui took over. Their previous finishes before his arrival were seventh and sixth. To break into that top four is still an overachievement for them, let alone push for the title. Paradoxically, his success has been so impressive that expectations have been raised to an almost impossible new height, a level at which he is now being judged.
It is a widely held football truth that goalkeepers are a different breed, a bit loco, and Lopetegui embraces that caricature. Not many can hold a torch to Diego Simeone when it comes to passion and energy on the touchline. In the recent derby win over Real Betis, Lopetegui celebrated victory like he had won another trophy. His record in the most passionate derby in Spain is phenomenal: six LaLiga matches against Betis, five wins and a draw. No wonder the fans love him.
However this season pans out – hopefully for Sevillistas with a strong league finish and a run to the Europa League final, which will be held in their own home city at the Estadio de la Cartuja – Lopetegui deserves enormous credit for being able to recover so seamlessly. His road to redemption is complete, and at just 55 years of age, he has a long coaching career still ahead. Having proven he can mix it with the best at the elite level, it will be fascinating to see where it takes him next.