Why Real Madrid Chose Spain’s Julen Lopetegui

Real Madrid's hiring of Julen Lopetegui considering his relative lack of club managerial experience. PICTURE:Maria Jose Segovia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

MADRID: Real Madrid’s appointment of current Spain national team coach Julen Lopetegui to take over as head coach following the summer’s World Cup was an even bigger surprise than Zinedine Zidane’s snap decision last month to step down from the position.

Here are five reasons behind the shock appointment of somebody who was not even included among the 22 candidates taken from the local media earlier on Tuesday. 

1. Lopetegui was willing and able to take the job

Real Madrid’s initial short list to replace Zidane was filled with names who were all currently in a job, and were either unwilling to leave or unable to force an exit. Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino had just signed a new long-term contract that the London club’s chief executive Daniel Levy insisted he fulfill.

Germany’s Joachim Low immediately ruled himself out, while others including Juventus’ Massimiliano Allegri, Chelsea’s Antonio Conte and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp were all apparently out of reach for various reasons.

Lopetegui had also just signed a new deal with the Spanish federation last month that would have seen him stay on as manager through Euro 2020. But that commitment was clearly not as water-tight as it appeared, with Marca saying new RFEF president Luis Rubiales did not feel he could stand in the way of his coach taking such an opportunity.

2. Excellent work with Spain in his first two years in the job

In succeeding Vicente del Bosque in the Spain national job following La Roja’searly exit at Euro 2016, Lopetegui impressed from the start. The 51-year-old boss quickly blended together a new side that sailed through qualifying for the World Cup finals by winning nine and drawing one of their 10 games, scoring 36 goals and conceding just three.

The Basque native did an excellent job of sidelining some veterans and incorporating younger players, while also skillfully managing the tricky political side of the job.

Spain have not lost any of his 20 games in charge (W14, D6), and at least until this news broke were one of the favourites to win the tournament and regain the trophy they lifted in 2010.

3. History with Madrid as a player and coach

As a player, Lopetegui was a goalkeeper who joined Madrid’s Castilla youth side as a teenager, although during two seasons with the senior squad he made just one appearance (a 3-3 draw at Atletico Madrid late in the 1989-90 season).

He kept in touch with the Bernabeu, however, even after a spell as the backup keeper at Barcelona, and returned to Madrid in 2006, where he headed up the scouting department before spending the 2009-09 season unsuccessfully trying to get Castilla promoted.

Bringing him back again now is a surprise — but then Zidane’s only coaching experience before stepping up in January 2016 was also with Madrid’s reserve side in Spain’s third tier.

4. Made headlines with Porto in the Champions League

Lopetegui’s only previous Spanish club coaching career was 10 games with Rayo Vallecano in the Segunda Division. His senior club experience is limited to 18 up-and-down months with Porto — the highlight of which was a 3-1 Champions League quarterfinal first-leg victory over Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich in April 2015.

That dramatic victory over a Guardiola side was enough to get Lopetegui linked with the Madrid job at one point when Carlo Ancelotti’s time in charge was coming close to an end.

Losing the second leg 6-1 in Germany put an end to such speculation, and Lopetegui’s time at Porto also ended abruptly when he was sacked the following January after a string of poor domestic results.

5. Knows many of the Madrid players really well

Real Madrid are by far the most represented club among Spain’s 23-man squad at the World Cup — with Sergio Ramos, Dani Carvajal, Nacho, Isco, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez all now with their new club boss in Russia, as is Jesus Vallejo — who has travelled as potential injury cover. The Bernabeu outfit have also been strongly linked with summer moves for Manchester United goalkeeper David De Gea and Real Sociedad right-back Alvaro Odriozola.

Madrid have also recently oriented their transfer policy towards young Spanish talent, with Dani Ceballos, Marcos Llorente and Borja Mayoral also at the club. Lopetegui’s best work to date has been with Spain’s underage sides, and initial local media reports claimed his record of working with younger players helped get him the job.

So some current Madrid stars such as Isco and Casemiro (who knows Lopetegui from Porto) will be delighted with the news. Others including unsettled Galactico Gareth Bale will possibly be a lot less enthused, while close links between Lopetegui and super agent Jorge Mendes may also now play a role in resolving Cristiano Ronaldo’s future.