By J Hutcherson (Oct 30, 2018) US Soccer Players – Julen Lopetegui out as Real Madrid coach after ten games is now the super club story. Following their 5-1 loss at Barcelona on Sunday, Real Madrid is 9th in La Liga and in 1st-place in Champions League Group G on a tiebreaker. That mixes the results, but La Liga struggles and a demoralizing loss to Barcelona drew a line that means a new coach in late October.
“This decision, which was taken with the utmost responsibility, seeks to bring about a turnaround in the first-team’s fortunes at a time when all of this season’s targets are still achievable,” read Real Madrid’s official statement. “The board considers there to be a large disparity between the quality within the Real Madrid squad, which boasts eight nominees for the next Ballon d’Or award – an unprecedented number in the club’s history – and the team’s results to date.”
Whether or not leaning on the Ballon d’Or nominations list is fair to Lopetegui and the players is a good question. Real Madrid leadership is well aware that they’re overseeing a team in transition. Had it just been the exit of coach Zinedine Zidane after winning their third Champions League title in a row, it would be difficult. Add in Cristiano Ronaldo leaving for Juventus, and the idea that Real Madrid is the destination for the world’s elite players also took a hit.
Expecting the team to shake that off and respond with results was asking too much. Their La Liga record shows that, with the team not able to simply plug in pieces and move forward. Luka Modric winning the FIFA Best Player award last month only helped to highlight the club’s issues. Yes, they have the personnel to win in Spain and Europe, but it’s never that easy.
Following the loss at Barcelona, Lopetegui made his position clear. “The responsibility ultimately lies with the coach, but we all win and lose together. I still believe that it’s early days in terms of the season and despite today being a sad day, I’m certain that this team will fare better in the second half of the season than we have in the first.”
He’s probably right across the board. Even without spending significant amounts of money in January, the quality in the Real Madrid squad will show through. It just hasn’t happened on schedule, and that was enough for Real Madrid’s board to act now. One of the advantages of being a super club is whoever replaces Lopetegui won’t be able to lean on the old excuses starting with “they’re not my players.” Well, who exactly are you going to bring in to replace those Ballon d’Or nominees?
That’s the game at this level, taking a team of world all-stars and turning them into a unit that wins soccer games. It sounds easy enough, almost like video game soccer. The reality that more than a few coaches discover is that it’s not easy at all. The pressures domestically when almost every game is the biggest game of the season for the teams you’re playing. Europe looming with needing to advance to the knockout rounds of the Champions League as the starting point for success. Sharing the spotlight with the other Spanish super team along with that pesky local rival who keeps showing up in the top three and in Europe.
It’s why there are so few coaches capable of doing it well. Even they normally operate with a clear shelf life. For most, stay too long, and things will eventually trend downward. Without the patience for down seasons, clubs will act and quickly to salvage their prestige and pride. Fair enough since all involved from administrators to fans recognize the stakes at this level. These aren’t career coaching appointments. The expectation is turnover.
Zidane choosing his exit is somewhat rare, but it makes sense. He was in the best position to understand his squad, the club, and his own motivation. Guardiola did the same at Barcelona, seeing when the project they were running reaches its end. That’s management, full stop. The expectation that anybody simply picks it up and continues at or near the top of the standings in two competitions is a significant ask. Now, Real Madrid will ask precisely that of somebody else.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from J Hutcherson:
- Staring down the postseason in MLS
- Do things really change in European soccer?
- MLS in October
- AFC and Telstar play in the Cup
Logo courtesy of Real Madrid