Pochettino! Guti! Kloop! ...Michel? ...Villa-Boas!? It seemed as though every name under the sun was linked with the vacant Madrid job, every name but Julen Lopetegui. The current undefeated Spanish National team coach had just signed a renewal with the federation only three weeks prior— extending his deal though 2020. No stranger to opportunity seizing, in 2016 Lopetegui had an agreement with Wolves which was quickly nullified the moment the Spain job was offered to him. Now that the club have their man, Madridista’s yearn to know more about their new leader.
Unbeknownst to many supporters, Lopetegui—a goalkeeper during his playing days—was a Castilla product and played there for three years after joining as a 19-year-old from Real Sociedad. He is a Basque native who made one appearance for the Real Madrid senior team after they had secured La Liga in the 1989-90 season. He had a journey-man career, achieving success with lower league sides like Rayo Vallecano, Las Palmas, and CD Logroñés as they fell in and out of La Liga. Lopetegui even found his way to Barcelona, making five appearances for the club after losing his battle with Carles Busquets for the #1 spot. Though, it’s not the Spaniards playing career which caught the eyes of Madrid’s board, it’s his time as a manager.
Lopetegui has long been entrenched within the Spanish national team coaching at various youth levels. His first gig was as an assistant to the Spain U17 squad that came in as runners up to Portugal in the 2003 European Championships. A team that was composed of talents like David Silva and Madrid product Jurado. From there, he earned his first real gig at former club Rayo Vallecano. After only ten matches, Lopetegui was sacked. The then 36-year-old, failed to impose his style in the Segunda and took a break from coaching.
A return to coaching came in 2008 with Real Madrid Castilla. Familiar names like Antonio Adan, Dani Parejo, Pablo Mosquera, Miguel Palanca, and Alberto Bueno formed part of his squad. The team finished sixth, just three points of a playoff spot and six points off of second place. His ties to the current Madrid squad run deeper than just his national team days, as he promoted a certain 19-year-old Nacho Fernandez to Castilla to play in two Segunda B games and thus solidify his promotion for the following season.
His one year experience with Castilla led him back to the Spanish federation and with the national team at youth levels. From 2010 to 2014, Lopetegui really began to build his reputation. He won the 2012 U19 European Championships and the 2013 U21 European Championships. He nurtured and brought the best out of young talents like Jese, Delefeuo, Isco, Thiago, Illaramendi, Morata, De Gea, and more. The 2013 U21 European champions were a joy to watch. Dominating the tournament from the outset with a fluid, possession-based, and counter-pressing style. Thiago, Koke, and Illaramendi were the fulcrum in the middle. Isco, a player Lopetegui adores, was given complete freedom and the confidence paid dividends. The former Malaga man, along with Thiago, were a class above and that tournament provided the impetus for Madrid to snatch the young gem.
After finalizing his contract with the federation, Lopetegui moved to Portugal and managed FC Porto. He signed seven Spanish players that summer utilizing Porto’s biggest transfer budget to date. By Porto standards, the Spaniard failed. He did not win any silverware despite the influx of talent brought in during that summer. One crucial piece to Lopetegui’s system was Casemiro. “He’s got a clear idea of what he brings to the table and his mission on the pitch. He was decisive for us at Porto. He’s always on hand to provide balance. For an attack-minded team that makes him a key figure” Lopetegui’s praise of the Brazilian continues, “He’s always well positioned, constantly covering and offering an outlet. What’s more, his physical prowess means he wins every 50-50, and he makes intelligent use of the ball.” Casemiro was crucial in getting Porto to a surprise quarter final in the Champions League where they beat Pep’s Bayern Munich only to be slaughtered in the return leg. He will likely play a key role in Lopetegui’s Madrid side.
Despite results at Porto, Lopetegui was handed the keys to the Spanish National team. He has seamlessly transitioned the team from one era to the next. No doubt, this was a key observation from the Madrid hierarchy. Core pillars like Ramos, Marcelo, Benzema, Modric, and Cristiano are entering the final stages of their career, a transitional will need to be made to see talents like Isco, Asensio, Kovacic, Vallejo, and more make the natural step-up to bigger roles. The Spaniard is already familiar with many of the first team squad—Ramos, Nacho, Carvajal, Vallejo, Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez, Isco, and Asensio have all fallen under his orders.
Spain have not only gone undefeated during his tenure, but they have played fluid, attacking football. Lopetegui has not been afraid to show his tactical versatility, throwing out a 3-5-2 when teams sit deep and defend, a 4-2-3-1 with a playmaker in Thiago in a deeper role to help build up play, and a 4-3-3 with inverted wingers in Isco and Silva whom are provided the confidence to roam as they please.
Just like Zidane, there is no predicted Lopetegui’s success. But of the available candidates, the Madrid board moved swiftly to appoint an astute coach who is proven in his ability to manage transitions and nurture young talent.