Who is Julen Lopetegui? All you need to know about the new Real Madrid manager

Colin Millar by Colin Millar / 12 June 2018, 17:44

On 22nd May, Julen Lopetegui penned a two-year contract extension with the Spanish national team.

Unbeaten through his opening 20 matches at the helm of La Roja, the new deal would take the boss through to the conclusion of the 2020 European Championships.

Nine days later, the football world was rocked by Zinedine Zidane’s departure as Real Madrid Coach.

Tuesday’s announcement that Lopetegui would be replacing the Frenchman at the end of this summer’s World Cup was another bolt from the blue. Madrid had concluded their unsuccessful pursuit of Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino. Then Germany boss Joachim Low and Hoffenheim’s Julian Nagelsmann publicly ruled themselves out of the running.

Antonio Conte’s contractual situation at Chelsea was too murky. Former players Guti – the current Madrid Juvenil boss – and Fernando Hierro were mentioned. But not Lopetegui, who held all the cards in the recent extension in the national post.

The 51-year-old, a Basque native, came up through the youth system at Los Blancos but played only one senior match – conceding three times in a pulsating Madrid derby draw at Atletico, when the league title had already been wrapped up.

In fact, following a stint at Logroñés, Lopetegui made five appearances for Barcelona between 1994 and 1997, although he was once again the perennial understudy. He won one cap for Spain and one for the Under-21 side. Always in the background, this could be the ideal for Madrid.

He spent the final five years of his playing career at Rayo Vallecano, whom he subsequently managed in 2003 but it did not go well, spanning just ten matches. Another unforgettable spell had appeared to end Lopetegui’s involvement at the top level of football. He soon became a pundit for Spanish TV station La Sexta.

Lopetegui had the self-awareness to realise that he had to work his way up from the bottom and admirably, he showed the determination and desire to pull it off.

After a year at the helm of Madrid’s Castilla side he returned to the international setup in 2010. He coached the Under-19 side for Spain, then the Under-20s and finally the Under-21s. Growing with the players, he was finally handed the top job in 2016 with a two-season stint at the helm of FC Porto sandwiched in-between.

The boss failed to win any silverware at the Dragoes but his first season was remembered fondly, including a run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. His side failed to recover from player sales and could not match the power of Benfica in those seasons, but it did not deter the Spanish national team from reading his coaching qualities.

Oddly, Lopetegui was also strongly linked to the vacant managerial position at English Championship club Wolverhampton Wanderers in 2016, fresh from their takeover.

Spain got their man and he has not put a foot wrong since. 20 matches, 14 wins, six draws, no defeats. Scoring at a rate of over three per game and conceding just more than one goal every other match. He has Spain ticking and has united the players, many of whom – most notably Isco – he helped nurture through the youth teams.

At Madrid the pressure and the scrutiny will be at another level. Zidane excelled at being the rock to absorb all the waves, acting as a calming influence to all those around him and giving his players the self-confidence and motivation to exceed at the highest level.

This job may almost be a ‘no-win’ situation. After all, the club have won three successive Champions League titles but face the possibility of star exits and having to challenge not only Barcelona – who finished 17 points clear of Madrid – but city neighbours Atletico, who secured second spot last season and are already reinforcing smartly.

This will be the job of Lopetegui’s life. He may have already lifted the World Cup by that stage, or indeed faced an unexpectedly traumatic tournament. After all, Group B is a tough proposition and such disruption on the eve of a tournament could skew performances. The benefit for Lopetegui is that six of his squad will be under his guidance at the Bernabeu.

All of a sudden, Lopetegui is not invisible. He may be about to become the most discussed coach in world football.

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